Nosy clinicians await fate

BRONWYN TORRIE AND CAROLINE KING
Last updated 05:00 03/07/2013

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The fate of four clinicians who breached patient confidentiality by snooping at bashed cricket star Jesse Ryder's medical records will be known next week.

The spying was among 20 such privacy breaches this year, some of which resulted in medical staff being sacked.

The Christchurch District Health Board (CDHB) apologised to Ryder in April and launched an investigation after a routine audit revealed there had been a breach of his X-ray records - just days after he was discharged.

Ryder spent six days in Christchurch Hospital after he was attacked by two men outside Aikmans Bar, in Merivale, in March.

Two of the clinicians were from West Coast DHB, one was from South Canterbury DHB and another was from Christchurch.

None had a role in Ryder's care.

CDHB chief executive David Meates told The Press last night the investigation was expected to be complete in the "coming week".

But the incident is not isolated.

District health boards have dealt with 20 privacy breaches already this year, according to data released under the Official Information Act. As a consequence, some of those staff - including nurses and doctors - were dismissed.

And it's not just medical professionals crossing the line.

Administration staff were also guilty of looking up medical history and clinical records, including X-ray and laboratory results.

In another high-profile case, 33 Auckland City Hospital staff were disciplined after looking up details about a man who had an eel stuck up his bottom last September.

Staff were sacked and given verbal or written warnings after an investigation found there was no legitimate reason to access the patient's records, including his blood test results and discharge summary.

Initially 48 staff, including six senior medical officers, were investigated for the privacy breach that made headlines around the world.

There have been a total of 62 patient privacy breaches in Auckland since 2010.

In the Nelson-Marlborough district, by contrast, there had been three. The staff, involving a mixture of clerical and clinical, were either stood down or given formal warnings, a Nelson-Marlborough DHB spokesman said.

Waitemata had the highest breach rate with 91 patient privacy breaches since 2010.

At Capital & Coast DHB, in Wellington, there have been 10 incidents over the last three years, involving doctors, nurses, allied health professionals and administration staff accessing electronic health records, lawyer Hiranthi Abegoonesekera said. All staff were disciplined with action ranging from written warnings to dismissal.

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The more serious breaches could result in dismissal, Bay of Plenty DHB privacy officer Gail Bingham said.

"The most common one's when a couple has separated and they find out their former partner has a new girlfriend or boyfriend and they look up their health records . . . to see what's going on."

But most confidentiality breaches were low-level and resulted in verbal and written warnings, she said.

"These are the ones who find out that a friend's in hospital so they look up the record to see what ward they're in, or they've heard their friend has had a baby, so they look up the health record to find out the sex.

"We put this in the ‘How could you be so dumb' category.

"We basically give them a lecture, make them take the privacy training and leave it at that."

However, despite more health records being accessible online, New Zealand Medical Association chairman Mark Peterson said the risk of privacy breaches had decreased as it became easier to trace offenders' electronic footprints.

Paper records were "surprisingly accessible", he said. "They're left about on the desks in wards and in doctors' and nurses' offices, and outpatient clinics.

"I would suggest that computer records are safer from a privacy point of view."

Since 2010, there have been 10 incidents at Capital & Coast involving doctors, nurses, allied health professionals and administration staff accessing records when they were not authorised to do so.

All staff were disciplined, with action ranging from written warnings to dismissal.

Hutt Valley has had five breaches since 2010, involving four administrative staff and one nurse. One person resigned, one was dismissed and two received final written warnings.

Wairarapa had "one situation", but details were withheld because the matter was before the courts, chief executive Graham Dyer said.

Two Hawke's Bay nurses were given warnings in 2010 and 2012 after looking up patient records.

Three MidCentral nurses were sacked for serious misconduct last year after they snooped on records, and in 2011 a clerical staff member was fired for inappropriately looking at a family member's record, deputy chief executive Mike Grant said.

Another high-profile case ended in 33 Auckland City Hospital staff being disciplined after looking up details about a man who had an eel stuck up his bottom in September.

Staff were sacked or given verbal or written warnings after an investigation found there was no legitimate reason to access his records, including blood test results and a discharge summary.

New Zealand Nurses Organisation professional nursing adviser Kate Weston said: "The numbers might seem high, but in comparison we've got 46,000 members and the number of people who have approached us having got into trouble . . . is very small."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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