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Snooping Tucson Hospital Workers Fired In Records Breach

Just about everyone we know is fascinated by the remarkable medical saga unfolding at University Medical Center in Tucson, Ariz.

Since last Saturday's tragic shooting, we've been hanging on every detail about  Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' condition and the status of the dozen other people injured. At a Friday media briefing, neurosurgeon G. Michael Lemole Jr. said of Giffords, "We're very encouraged she's making all the right moves."

But some workers at the hospital have let their curiosity get the best of them. Earlier this week, management at University Medical Center fired three employees and let go a nurse working for a contractor because they'd snooped on confidential computerized medical records of patients injured in the shooting.

The hospital released a statement late Wednesday, saying the people violated a "zero tolerance policy on patient privacy violations." The hospital notified the patients' families about the breach and said nothing from the records appears to have been made public.

Computerized systems for patients charts can help hospitals do a better job with care. But they also make the protection of information from prying eyes harder.

When celebrities become patients, the temptation can be too great. A few years ago, details of Farah Fawcett's cancer diagnosis and care at UCLA Medical Center leaked and was published in the National Enquirer. An investigation by the hospital "found that one employee had accessed her records more often than her own doctors," the Los Angeles Times reported.

Later that woman, an administrative worker, pleaded guilty to a felony charge of breaking federal medical privacy laws for commercial purposes, but she died of cancer before sentencing, according to the Times.

The medical files of other celebrities have been breached, including those of Britney Spears on two occasions at UCLA facilities and Maria Shriver's, too.

To catch inside snoops, some hospitals now create fictitious celebrity medical records as bait for the untrustworthy. Hospitals computer specialists then monitor who access the files, reports HealthLeaders Media.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Hensley edits stories about health, biomedical research and pharmaceuticals for NPR's Science desk. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has led the desk's reporting on the development of vaccines against the coronavirus.