911 Dispatcher Fired for Privacy Violation

The unauthorized sharing of private health information on Facebook has resulted in a 911 dispatcher losing her job, but that may not be the end of it. The patient whose privacy was violated believes loss of employment is not punishment enough for the privacy violation, and wants criminal charges to be filed for the privacy breach.

Any information provided over the telephone by a patient to a 911 dispatcher should be treated as confidential,  The information must be entered into the dispatch database, and while that information should be shared for the purpose of providing treatment, or for other healthcare functions, the privacy of patients must be respected.

The the incident in question involved a 60-year old Catoosa County resident who called 911 reporting a blood clot that had come loose. The 911 dispatcher recorded the clients name, address, and details of the medical problem as was required by the job.

However, 911 dispatcher Holly Dowis took a photograph of the dispatch screen using her mobile phone and sent the image to family members via a private chat on Facebook. The privacy breach came to light after the husband of one of Dowis’s cousins reported the matter to her boss to “exact revenge” for previously reporting his wife to the police, although Dowis claims that she did no such thing. He also used the information contained in the photograph to contact the 911 caller to advise him of the breach of his privacy.

An investigation into the incident confirmed that Dowis had breached both county and federal regulations, and as a result, she had her employment contract terminated. Dowis had worked for the county for 8 years and was a former communications officer of the year.

County manager Jim Walker told WRCBTV that this was not the first time that Dowis had been involved in an incident of this nature, although none were nearly as serious as the latest incident. Previous incidents had not involved the sharing of any patient health information. A selfie was reportedly taken that accidentally also showed the dispatch screen.

While the 911 caller believes criminal charges are appropriate, that is a matter for the district attorney to decide. It is not clear at this stage whether the 911 caller will be pursuing a civil claim for damages as a result of the privacy violation.

Article Amended February 16, 2015: Article referred to a HIPAA violation. This was a privacy violation, not a violation of HIPAA.

Author: Steve Alder has many years of experience as a journalist, and comes from a background in market research. He is a specialist on legal and regulatory affairs, and has several years of experience writing about HIPAA. Steve holds a B.Sc. from the University of Liverpool.