Medical secrets of Hollywood stars sold by hospital staff

Guy Adams
Wednesday 06 August 2008 00:00

As if the daily attention of paparazzi and rubbish-sifting journalists wasn't enough, the privacy of dozens of Hollywood celebrities has been breached by more than 120 trusted employees at a group of Los Angeles hospitals.

Staff at the UCLA Medical Centre used their administrative computer system to access the medical records of celebrity patients, including Britney Spears, Farrah Fawcett and Arnold Schwarzenegger's wife, Maria Shriver, according to an investigation by the California Department of Public Health.

The breaches of security continued even after a crackdown on record-peeking in April, when a former hospital worker, Lawanda Jackson, was arrested and charged with receiving $4,600 (£2,300) from an unidentified media outlet for leaking information about a patient.

Although the celebrity in question wasn't named in the original indictment, she was subsequently identified as Fawcett, whose struggle with cancer was reported by the National Enquirer before she had been able to tell her family.

Monday's report blamed the Medical Centre, which runs four of the city's biggest hospitals, for failing to take adequate steps to preserve patient confidentiality. It revealed that 127 medical and administrative staff had looked at celebrities' records without permission, leading to dismissals, suspensions and warnings.

In the case of Ms Jackson, an administrative assistant, the report said that she had been able to access intimate details of more than 900 patients "without any legitimate reason" by simply using her supervisor's computer password.

She was then able to access their social security health insurance numbers and addresses.

When her case came to public attention, Ms Jackson told The Los Angeles Times that she was merely being "nosy". Although she resigned, and acknowledged making a "mistake", she denied profiting from it, telling reporters. "I didn't leak anything or anything like that. It wasn't for money or anything. I was just looking." If she is found guilty on charges of "illegally obtaining identifiable health information for commercial advantage", she faces up to 10 years in jail.

The scale of the information-access problem, which was first exposed this year, is now far wider than previously thought," she claimed. Initial reports suggested that no more than 60 workers were involved.

However, the new report reveals that, even after the Medical Centre warned staff that it was cracking down in April, a "well-known" person's privacy was breached when two nurses and an emergency technician called up their computerised medical records in mid-April.

The revelation will cause more anger to patients, and has prompted Mr Schwarzenegger, California's Governor, to propose legislation that would impose financial penalties on hospitals whose employees breach confidentiality.

Fawcett has already sought to blame the hospital and the media – rather than the individual charged with the violation – for the way details of the surgery she received to remove a tumour from her lower intestine were leaked in 2006.

"It is my belief that what Lawanda Jackson is most guilty of is being a pawn," she said. "She worked in a hospital system that did not provide strong enough deterrents to stop their employees from breaching their patient's medical records, which made it all the easier for the tabloids to financially induce her to invade my privacy."

In a statement yesterday, David Feinberg, chief executive of the UCLA Health System, which runs the hospitals, said his organisation had no excuses for the breaches of confidentiality.

"All employees who were found to have violated patient confidentiality during our review have been disciplined, including some who have been terminated," he said. "On behalf of the entire leadership of the UCLA Health System, I am deeply sorry for this failure, and the personal distress these breaches may have caused."

Of the 59 additional employees linked to the scandal by Monday's report, 24 still work at the hospitals. Management has proposed firing seven, it reveals. Six will be suspended for two to three weeks each, eight will receive verbal or written warnings, and three remain under investigation.

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