Akron General Medical Center employees were fired recently for violating hospital and federal privacy rules involving the fatal shooting of a patient in the intensive-care unit.
John H. Wise, 66, is accused of shooting and killing his wife, Barbara, at the hospital Aug. 4. She died the next day.
Hospital spokesman Jim Gosky confirmed Thursday that “a small number” of hospital employees were terminated for accessing computerized patient records in the case even though they weren’t involved with the patient’s care.
Gosky declined to say how many workers lost their jobs so far in the ongoing investigation. He also would not specify their positions.
“It was a problem with a few employees,” Gosky said. “We’re protecting our patients. … It’s terrible when any employee loses his or her job, but our patients come first.
“We’re committed to patient privacy and have zero tolerance for patient privacy violations,” he added.
Mark Whitehurst, chair of the Professional Staff Nurses Association, which represents about 800 nurses at Akron General, wouldn’t say whether any nurses were fired.
“As professional nurses, our primary commitment is to our patients,” Whitehurst said in a prepared statement. “Part of that commitment is respecting and safeguarding the privacy of our patients. As with any alleged breech of patient privacy, we are currently gathering information and evaluating what, if any, action might be necessary moving forward. Privacy laws, like HIPAA, are very important to protecting our patients’ rights, and we are supportive of reasonable measures aimed at protecting our patients.”
The federal law known as HIPAA, or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, provides rules to protect patient privacy and to limit who has access to information.
Employees are informed during orientation, seminars and annual training that federal privacy rules prohibit them from looking at patient files unless the information is needed to do their job, Gosky said. All violations result in termination.
The recent violations were “isolated incidents,” and patient information was not shared by the employees with others, Gosky said. The closed system limits who can access patient files.
“It doesn’t happen a lot, fortunately, because employees know, but you can’t let the curiosity get the better of you,” Gosky said. “That’s human nature and we understand that, but it still doesn’t justify the fact that the policies were violated.”
John Wise’s attorney, Paul F. Adamson, said he and his client haven’t been notified of any issues regarding Barbara Wise’s medical records. Adamson said he hasn’t requested the files.
Hospitals nationwide have faced similar issues with potential privacy violations in high-profile cases.
According to published reports, a hospital in Minnesota fired 32 employees last year for looking at medical records involving a mass overdose even though they weren’t involved in the cases.
In 2010, a California hospital was fined $95,000 by state health regulators for allowing unauthorized employees to view medical records that sources told the Los Angeles Times were the files of Michael Jackson.
A recent survey of patient privacy breaches by technology security firm Veriphyr found snooping into medical records of fellow workers, friends or relatives accounted for the majority of violations reported by responding health-care organizations.
Cheryl Powell can be reached at 330-996-3902 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Powell on Twitter at twitter.com/abjcherylpowell.