Articles and Case Studies

No Peeking

27 Jun 2017

sara bird

by Dr Sara Bird

no peeking

Dr Sara Bird answers a question from an MDA National Member about accessing the medical records of family members.
I recently took my father to the local Emergency Department (ED), where I currently work, after he suffered what appeared to be a stroke. He was referred for an urgent CT scan. As the ED was very busy and we were increasingly anxious, I decided to check the results on the ED computer. While logging in, one of the doctors asked what I was doing as I wasn't rostered on duty. I've now been asked to attend a meeting with the ED Director. I don't think I’ve done anything wrong. I haven't breached confidentiality or privacy as my father wanted me to check his CT scan results.

While your actions in the circumstances are completely understandable, it’s not appropriate to access patients’ medical records unless you are involved in their medical care.

You were acting in the role of a concerned son.  You weren’t a treating doctor and you weren’t rostered to work at the time. I understand you had no intention of being involved in your father’s medical care (and under the Code of Conduct for Doctors in Australia, you should avoid providing medical care to anyone with whom you have a close personal relationship).

It’s worth considering what you would have done if you had found, for example, that the CT scan revealed multiple cerebral metastases. Would you have informed your father and family of the results?

A better approach would have been to inform the ED staff of the anxiety and ask if they could review the results and discuss them with your father.

Pry at your own peril

It's important to be aware that regular audits are conducted on access to electronic medical records.

A doctor’s registration was suspended for six months for accessing his wife’s electronic medical records without reasonable justification, and seeking information from her Oncologist without her authority. He was also found to have knowingly made and failed to correct false submissions to the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency.

This follows the news that 21 SA Health staff had been caught inappropriately looking at patients’ medical records. To date, five of them have had their employment terminated.

We have assisted a number of doctors in training who have been under investigation for looking at the medical records of their partners, other family members or “celebrity” patients.

Significant penalties can apply if you are found to have accessed medical records without clinical justification.

Dr X attended the meeting with the ED Director and listened carefully to the concerns. He acknowledged that, on reflection, he should not have reviewed his father’s CT scan results. He reassured the Director that he understood the reasons why it was not appropriate, and that he would not inappropriately access patients’ records in the future. Satisfied with the discussion, the Director reassured Dr X that the matter was now at an end. Dr X's father made a good recovery from his stroke.

MDA Nationals' Medico-legal Advisory Service operates on weekdays from 8:30am to 8:00pm (AEST), with access to emergency advice 24 hours a day. For advice or further information, email or call 1800 011 255.
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