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Dallas Hospital Sued by Ebola Nurse for HIPAA Privacy Violation

The Ebola epidemic raised questions about the privacy of individuals and when information about illnesses can be disclosed. There was considerable confusion about when Protected Health Information can be disclosed in emergency situations “for the public good.”

In the case of an outbreak of a highly infectious – and potentially fatal – disease, disclosing information about the victims is a necessity if the disease is to be controlled. The release of information about the victims makes it easier to determine who that person may have come into contact with and is important to stop the spread of the disease.

However, in some HIPAA violation cases, the disclosure of information has potential to lead to discrimination. Public knowledge of medical information about an individual can cause mental anguish as well as the victim to suffer financially.

The most recent example comes from a nurse who served in a Dallas Hospital operated by the Texas Health Resources during the outbreak. Nina Pham, a 26-year old nurse, worked at the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas and helped to treat a patient who had contracted the disease. Unfortunately, the close contact with the patient resulted in her contracting Ebola.

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She was administered experimental drugs to control the disease and has now been declared Ebola-free. However, for Pham the problems had only just begun. Just before she was released from hospital, a doctor took a video of her in her hospital bed. This video was then released to the public and she became “the American face of the fight against the disease,” however she alleges that she did not give permission for her information to be released, and claims that the release of the video was a breach of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA).

Pham has now filed a lawsuit against the hospital that claims “Never once did THR get Nina’s permission to be used as a PR pawn like this,” the suit goes on to explain that “Never once did THR discuss its purposes or motivations or tell Nina what it was going to do with the information it sought from her. Instead, THR went to this young lady who was not in the position to be making any such decisions, and used her when she was in the darkest moment of her life, all for THR’s own benefit.” In addition to the release of information, the lawsuit claims “Nina’s record was grossly and inappropriately accessed by dozens of people throughout the THR system.”

The privacy violation is not the only accusation made against the hospital. Pham alleges the hospital acted with negligence and failed to prepare or train the staff about the disease and did not issue the appropriate protective equipment to prevent the illness from being contracted.

Pham is seeking unspecified damages for the physical pain and mental anguish she suffered and for loss of future earnings. She still suffers from aches and pains, has lost some of her hair and the trauma has caused insomnia and nightmares when she does sleep. Even though she has been cured, there are after-effects of the disease and she potentially will suffer further health problems such as vision loss, organ failure and sensory changes in the future.

In response to the news that Pham is to file a lawsuit against the hospital, a statement was released by Wendell Watson, a spokesperson for Texas Health Resources, saying “Nina Pham bravely served Texas Health Dallas during a most difficult time. We continue to support and wish the best for her, and we remain optimistic that constructive dialogue can resolve this matter.” No reference was made to the allegations made by Pham.

Author: Steve Alder is the editor-in-chief of HIPAA Journal. Steve is responsible for editorial policy regarding the topics covered on HIPAA Journal. He is a specialist on healthcare industry legal and regulatory affairs, and has several years of experience writing about HIPAA and other related legal topics. Steve has developed a deep understanding of regulatory issues surrounding the use of information technology in the healthcare industry and has written hundreds of articles on HIPAA-related topics.