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Friday, September 16, 2011

Patient Data Posted Online in Major Breach of Privacy

By Kevin Sack
The New York Times
Published September 9, 2011

A medical privacy breach led to the public posting on a commercial Web site of data for 20,000 emergency room patients at Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto, Calif., including names and diagnosis codes, the hospital has confirmed. The information stayed online for nearly a year.

Since discovering the breach last month, the hospital has been investigating how a detailed spreadsheet made its way from one of its vendors, a billing contractor identified as Multi-Specialty Collection Services, to a Web site called Student of Fortune, which allows students to solicit paid assistance with their schoolwork.
Gary Migdol, a spokesman for Stanford Hospital and Clinics, said the spreadsheet first appeared on the site on Sept. 9, 2010, as an attachment to a question about how to convert the data into a bar graph.
Although medical security breaches are not uncommon, the Stanford breach was notable for the length of time that the data remained publicly available without detection.
Even as government regulators strengthen oversight by requiring public reporting of breaches and imposing heavy fines, experts on medical security said the Stanford breach spotlighted the persistent vulnerability posed by legions of outside contractors that gain access to private data.
The spreadsheet included names, diagnosis codes, account numbers, admission and discharge dates, and billing charges for patients seen at Stanford Hospital’s emergency room during a six-month period in 2009, Mr. Migdol said. It did not include Social Security numbers, birth dates, credit-card numbers or other information used to perpetrate identity theft, he said, but the hospital is offering free identity protection services to affected patients.
The breach was discovered by a patient and reported to the hospital on Aug. 22, according to a letter written four days later to affected patients by Diane Meyer, Stanford Hospital’s chief privacy officer. The hospital took “aggressive steps,” and the Web site removed the post the next day, Ms. Meyer wrote. It also notified state and federal agencies, Mr. Migdol said.
“It is clearly disturbing when this information gets public,” he said. “It is our intent 100 percent of the time to keep this information confidential and private, and we work hard every day to ensure that.”
Diane Dobson, of Santa Clara, Calif., said her “jaw dropped” on Saturday when she intercepted the letter from Ms. Meyer addressed to her 21-year-old son, who she said had received emergency psychiatric treatment at Stanford in 2009. Ms. Dobson said it could have been disastrous if her son, who lives at home, had learned that his name was linked to a mental health diagnosis.
“My son, I can tell you, is fragile and confused enough that this would have sent him over the edge,” Ms. Dobson said, saying she decided to speak publicly now because of her frustration with the breach. “Everyone with an electronic medical record is at risk, and that means everyone.”

The entire story can be read here.
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