LOS ANGELES — In the song "Leave Me Alone," imperiled pop star Britney Spears sang, "Leave me alone/ Let me live my life in peace." Now, she might want to sing those words to the medical workers on duty during her most recent hospital stay.
The Los Angeles Times is reporting that the UCLA Medical Center has launched an investigation into some 25 employees who peeked at the singer's confidential medical records during her late January/ early February stay in the psychiatric ward. This week, the hospital began the process of firing 13 employees, has suspended at least six more, and is considering discipline against six other physicians who looked at her computerized records.
"It's not only surprising," human resources director Jeri Simpson told the paper, adding that similar firings also followed Spears' 2005 stay, when she gave birth to her first child, Sean Preston. "It's very frustrating, and it's very disappointing.
"I feel like we do everything that we possibly can to ensure the privacy of our patients, and I know we feel horrible that it happened again," Simpson added, offering an apology to Spears. "I don't know what it is about this particular person."
UCLA confirmed that, in an attempt to keep this breach of ethics from occurring, officials had sent out a memo on the morning Spears was hospitalized. The memo reminded employees that they were only allowed to view their own patients' records and that doing otherwise violated a federal patient-privacy law called the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
"Each member of our workforce, which includes our physicians, faculty, employees, volunteers and students, is responsible to ensure that medical information is only accessed as required for treatment, for facilitating payment of a claim, or for supporting our healthcare operations," the memo read. "Please remember that any unauthorized access by a workforce member will be subject to disciplinary action, which could include termination."
During routine monitoring of inappropriate record-viewing, UCLA officials uncovered violations by both medical and nonmedical personnel involving Spears' records, following an electronic trail left by the employees.
In defense of the alleged tabloid-minded peepers, unions such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299 at UCLA are representing some of the health workers who've been told they're being fired. "We believe that the university has a responsibility to their patients," said Nicole Moore, the union's lead organizer. "But also their employees, to administer fair and consistent discipline to everybody, regardless of their position, whether it's a doctor who violated it or a certified nursing assistant."
In other parts of the country, celebs such as George Clooney have run into similar problems. The "Ocean's Eleven" star was hospitalized in October at New Jersey's Palisades Medical Center after a motorcycle accident, only to have more than two dozen employees of the hospital later suspended for looking at his confidential records.
Simpson added that UCLA treats non-Britney celebrities "all the time," insisting "you never hear about this."