HIPAA privacy issues rarely make headlines, but when a New Jersey hospital recently suspended 27 employees for violation of HIPAA patient confidentiality requirements, the story received widespread press attention. Not because news outlets care that much about New Jersey hospitals, or suspended employees, or HIPAA, for that matter but because the patient whose privacy was compromised was actor George Clooney. Following a motorcycle accident, Clooney and his companion were treated at the hospital, and the 27 suspended employees allegedly took a look at his medical records, without any reason to do so.
The genesis of the news reports appears to be this story by a local CBS News affiliate, which relates that the suspended employees include doctors and nurses, and that the hospital is further investigating whether any of the suspended employees revealed Clooney’s medical information to the media. The story further relates that Clooney issued a statement questioning the wisdom of the hospital’s response: "…while I very much believe in a patient’s right to privacy, I would hope that this could be settled without suspending medical workers."
In fact, reports of employees disciplined for HIPAA violations are pretty rare, either in the press or in judicial decisions. That doesn’t mean that such incidents don’t occur. But it does suggest that when discipline for a HIPAA violation is meted out, the sanction may be less than what would trigger a corresponding appeal or complaint by the employee. And certaintly likely to be less than the suspensions related in the Clooney matter. Perhaps blog readers would like to respond with their experience regarding the incidence and severity of employee discipline for HIPAA violations. And regarding HIPAA violations that don’t involve patients whose livelihood depends on the attention of the public.
Perhaps it is not surprising that Clooney has thus far taken a rather relaxed attitude about the incident. Unlike most Hollywood stars, Clooney earlier this year freely admitted to undergoing plastic surgery. Clooney’s response when he was asked about the surgery: "I had my eyes done. Can you tell? I think it’s important to look awake."