Janesville32.2°

Nurses fired for picture of patient X-ray

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Kayla Bunge
March 5, 2009
— Federal authorities have been notified about an incident involving two nurses at Mercy Walworth Hospital and Medical Center who reportedly took pictures of a patient's X-ray and talked about it online.

The nurses do not face criminal charges but could face federal penalties—from a fine to time behind bars—if the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services determines the nurses violated the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA), which governs patient privacy.


The Walworth County Sheriff's Office began investigating after a hospital employee called to report the incident, which he heard about from other employees, Capt. Dana Nigbor said.


According to sheriff's office reports:


The hospital employee told police Feb. 18 a nurse used her cell phone to take a picture of a patient and posted the picture on her Facebook page.


The patient was admitted to the emergency room Feb. 15 with an object lodged in his rectum.


One of the nurses told investigators Feb. 23 she and another nurse took pictures of the patient's X-ray when they learned the object was a sexual device. She said she was careful not to get the patient's name in the picture.


The nurse told police she did not post the picture on her Facebook page, but she did make reference to the incident on the social networking Web site.


The nurse told police she was suspended while Mercy officials investigated and was fired Feb. 19, according to reports.


Mercy Vice President Barb Bortner said the nurses violated company policy.


"We have policies in place to address acceptable behavior … and in this situation, a part of one of the policies we have states employees can be terminated for inappropriately disclosing protected patient information and other confidential records," she said.


Bortner said the incident is unusual.


"Nothing like this has ever happened before," she said.


Mercy employees are regularly educated about company policies and about federal regulations, such as the HIPPA privacy law, she said.


"We take patient privacy issues seriously," she said. "Our employees really embrace that culture of excellence, and our patients receive exceptional health care services, which include the safeguarding of their information."


The sheriff's office determined the nurses did not violate state statutes, and the case is closed, Nigbor said.


But the sheriff's office notified federal authorities of the incident because it could be a violation of federal privacy laws, she said.


Michael Robinson, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights, said it's "hard to say" if an incident such as this is common.


Since April 2003, when the HIPAA privacy law went into effect, the office for civil rights has received 41,807 complaints of possible HIPAA violations. The majority of cases were not eligible for enforcement, he said.



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