Friday, January 8, 2010

HIPAA Meets Politics Via Twitter

The following story hit my mailbox yesterday, courtesy of HIT News. twitter-logo Seems a worker in Mississippi has lost her job by getting a little snarky with protected health information via twitter:

A simple tweet has sparked a HIPAA compliance and public relations mess at Mississippi’s University Medical Center, and an administrative assistant is out of a job as a result, reports a local TV station.

The controversy began when Mississippi governor Haley Barbour posted this tweet on his Twitter page: ”Glad the Legislature recognizes our dire fiscal situation.  Look forward to hearing their ideas on how to trim expenses.”

“Schedule regular medical exams like everyone else instead of paying UMC employees over time to do it when clinics are usually closed,” tweeted UMC administrative assistant Jennifer Carter. She had heard that the governor had come into UMC for a physical one Saturday three years ago, and that the clinic had to be staffed up with 15-20 workers just for his visit.

Next: Carter paid dearly …

Two days later, Carter was in UMC’s compliance office for violating HIPAA’s privacy provisions. The Compliance Department told her the Governor’s Office had tracked her down and told them to deal with her,” according to WLBT.

Carter says she was suspended without pay for three days and “strongly encouraged to resign,” which she did. She says she ”wasn’t really jabbing” at the governor.  ”That’s just what people do on Twitter.”

I explored a number of the links provided on the site, yet I have one big unanswered questions about the event:

Did the governor publicly acknowledge his physical or its results at the time of this appointment? Those in the public eye, especially in an election year(Barbour is up for re-election in 2011, so this event took place during his last quest for office), often have their physicals and then assure the public that they are in great health. If it was public knowledge that he had the physical, then I am confused about where the break in protected information occurred. Carter said nothing about his health, merely commented on the “unnecessary” costs the state may have incurred. Given security issues with a prominent government official, the situation described may have been the least disruptive for the medical center’s other patients. It could even have been a cost-effective measure when all other factors were considered.

If the appointment was not publicly acknowledged, then Carter’s tweet was clearly a violation of HIPAA, since knowing the date and circumstances of a medical procedure can compromise one’s privacy. Twitter_Birds_rasterizedHer defense- she ”wasn’t really jabbing” at the governor- seems silly. Clearly, she was questioning the governor’s judgment and priorities. Such “jabbing” would be protected speech… if a healthcare appointment weren’t involved.

Social media, like twitter, allow us to find our audience as never before. We all must remember our legal and moral responsibilities, and use these freedoms wisely.

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