It was a blustery day last week when pink sheets of paper started flying out of a trash bin by Research Medical Center.
These weren’t leftover invitations to an office party. No, something more serious — patient billing information of a physician group practice based at the hospital.
They revealed patient names, addresses, Social Security numbers, tests and procedures. The practice quickly issued statements that it takes patient privacy seriously and was investigating the situation.
One might think that in an age of electronic patient records, trails of paper like this wouldn’t exist anymore. But the advent of the paperless hospital or doctor’s office is still somewhere in the future, if it arrives at all.
How much patient information gets stored in computers depends a lot on an organization’s policies and timetables and budgets. Getting computer systems to talk with one another has been a problem. So has the reluctance of doctors to do what amounts to data entry whenever they see patients. And the costs of going digital can be astronomical.
Right now, most doctors and hospitals are working in a hybrid environment. They use records entered directly into their computer systems, but patients’ test results, prescription orders and doctors’ notes may all still be on paper, along with the faxes and reports that arrive constantly from other hospitals and doctors.
Existing patient records, along with the daily glut of paperwork, often get scanned into the computer system. Once they’re digital, the hard copies often can be discarded.
Federal law doesn’t say a doctor or hospital can’t unload these old patient records into a trash bin, but the law makes it quite clear that the records first have to be shredded, burned, pulped, pulverized or in some other way “rendered essentially unreadable, indecipherable and otherwise cannot be reconstructed.” That’s backed by fines of up to $50,000 per violation.
A spokeswoman for Midwest Women’s Healthcare Specialists, the Research Medical Center practice with the flyaway records, said the papers were mistakenly tossed during a construction project. Most of the records have been retrieved, she said. The medical practice is revising the way it stores documents, performing audits and putting its staff through refresher security training.
Meanwhile, it’s providing patients whose records got loose with information on how to enroll in a year of free online credit monitoring.
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