Saturday, March 17, 2012

Facebook Friday: Doctor posts ER stories on Facebook

Originally posted on 4/29/2011 on lubbockonline.com

Rebecca Herold reports at infosecisland.com that Dr. Alexandra Thran was disciplined by the Rhode Island Department of Health for posting Protected Health Information (PHI) on her Facebook page. She tried to post non-identifiable information, but one case was unique enough that someone identified the patient from the Facebook post.

On the one hand I can understand the doctors desire to share the interesting cases she worked on in the emergency room. But interesting stories or not, there have been laws on patient confidentiality for decades, and they were strengthened by HIPAA. Dr. Thran was given a reprimand and fined $500. It was a very lenient punishment, probably because Ms. Thran was obviously trying to keep the stories anonymous and it was only because of the unusual nature of the one case that there was an issue at all. But because the patient was identified in the one case she could have lost her license to practice medicine and could even have faced criminal charges.

There are 19 types of PHI in the list of protected data. Dr. Thran avoided all of them in every case but the one that got her busted. And in that one case she avoided all but #19: Other unique identifiers that can be attributed to a specific individual.

According to the review board Dr. Thran did almost everything right:

The board said she did not use the names of patients, and did not intend to disclose confidential information, but the nature of the injuries of one patient allowed an unauthorized third party to figure out who it was, the board ruled.

As soon as she found out someone had identified one of her patients from the information on her Facebook account Dr. Thran took it down. That also weighed in her favor, I'm sure. But she should never have put that information on Facebook in the first place. She could have gotten in trouble even if she'd been overheard talking to friends at Chili's. The potential harm, or the potential speed damaging information could be spread, is much greater on Facebook. Dr. Thran dodged a career ending bullet. I hope she learned from the experience.