HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Monday, March 17, 2008

Discipline and Firings After Snooping Through Britney Spears' Records

The LA Times reports on the some recent disciplinary charges and firings that occurred at the UCLA Medical Center after the Center learned of snooping that ccurred into the medical records of Britney Spears.  You would think that people would know better.  Charles Ornstein writes,

UCLA Medical Center is taking steps to fire at least 13 employees and has suspended at least six others for snooping in the confidential medical records of pop star Britney Spears during her recent hospitalization in its psychiatric unit, a person familiar with the matter said Friday.  In addition, six physicians face discipline for peeking at her computerized records, the person said.

Questioned about the breaches, officials acknowledged that it was not the first time UCLA had disciplined workers for looking at Spears' records. Several were caught prying into records after Spears gave birth to her first son, Sean Preston, in September 2005 at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center and Orthopaedic Hospital, officials said. Some were fired.

"It's not only surprising, it's very frustrating and it's very disappointing," said Jeri Simpson, the Santa Monica hospital's director of human resources, who handled the discipline in the first instance.  "I feel like we do everything that we possibly can to ensure the privacy of our patients and I know we feel horrible that it happened again."  Simpson said UCLA treats celebrities "all the time and you never hear about this."  "I don't know what it is about this particular person, I don't know what it is about her," she added, referring to Spears. . . .

Such prying is also considered a violation of state and federal laws governing medical privacy. The laws allow for fines of up to $250,000, although such penalties are uncommon. Under different laws, separate fines are allowed if patients are receiving treatment for mental illness or substance abuse.

The state Department of Public Health said late Friday that it had opened an investigation of the hospital.  Klove declined to discuss specifics of the most recent incidents, citing privacy protections for patients and workers. But she did say the hospital began taking disciplinary actions immediately upon discovering each breach.  "Right from the minute she came in, audits were continually being done," she said. "We watch this all the time. We have people dedicated to looking at records to monitor access." . . . .

Medical and nonmedical employees are set to be disciplined, although no doctors were targeted for firing, the person said. There is no evidence that any employee leaked information to the media or sold it -- something that hospitals in a celebrity culture have reason to fear.

Nicole Moore, whose union represents three of the non-physician workers involved, said she is trying to determine whether the discipline was administered fairly. Workers are entitled to contest their proposed termination before it becomes final.  "We believe that the university has a responsibility to their patients but also their employees to administer fair and consistent discipline to everybody, regardless of their position, whether it's a doctor who violated it or a certified nursing assistant," said Moore, lead organizer for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 3299 at UCLA.

Klove said doctors are overseen differently than other employees. By law, they report to a medical staff governing body, which has the authority to limit, suspend or revoke their practice privileges.In January, Spears was admitted to UCLA under Section 5150 of California's Welfare and Institutions Code, which allows patients to be held against their will for up to 72 hours for evaluation if they are deemed a danger to themselves or others. Her hold was extended and she was released Feb. 6. . . . .

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