More than 100 Park Nicollet Clinic employees have been suspended this year for violating federal laws on patient privacymostly by tapping into electronic records of relatives or friends, according to clinic officials.
This week, the St. Louis Park, Minn.-based clinic notified its 8,300 employees about the suspensions as a reminder of what it calls its "zero tolerance policy" on confidentiality. Already, twice as many employees have been disciplined for privacy violations in 2007 than in all of 2006, officials say. They were suspended without pay for three days.
The problem has surfaced in hospitals and clinics across the nation as they have switched to electronic records. While new technology has made it easier for employees to snoop where they don't belong, experts say, it has also made it easier to catch them.
"Anyone that has anything to do with patient care, from scheduling appointments to actually performing patient care, has access to the medical record," said Susan Zwaschka, Park Nicollet's general counsel, who wrote the e-mail to the clinic staff. "That's why we take it so seriously."
In many cases, employees have been tempted to peek at charts of neighbors or family membersa case of "old habits die hard," said Jan Rabbers, a Minnesota Nurses Association spokeswoman.
In the past, she said, employees might check on a relative or neighbor who happened to be in the hospital. But now, since passage of the federal health privacy law in 2003, checking such information can be a federal offense.
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