Data loss and medical privacy: In the aftermath of a tornado

Tragically, the tornado that recently hit Joplin, Missouri took lives as well as destroying most of the city. As the state and the medical community scrambled to respond to the tragedy and to  provide care, the country has watched, prayed, and tried to support and help those who have been affected.

But in the aftermath of the devastation, one additional worrying problem – although it may be the least of some people’s problems – is that medical records were scattered far and wide.

The destruction of medical records or their dissemination beyond intended sharing poses unique challenges and threats to the residents of Joplin.  For patients of Mercy St. John’s Regional Medical Center, their information is safe as it is on computerized systems at a data center. For these patients, the threats are to their privacy as the details of their health wind up in strangers’ hands.  There is also a risk of identity theft if detailed records fall into the wrong hands, although at this point, I think the privacy concern may be a bigger issue. Patients at other facilities or offices may not be so lucky and there may  be a risk that their treatment is affected if their medical histories are not available.

What To Do If You Find Records (press release from Mercy St. John’s Regional Medical Center)

In response to reports of medical records and other patient information that have been found following the tornado that struck Joplin, Mo., on May 22, Mercy/St. John’s Regional Medical Center has established a process for retrieval of these documents. If you have medical records in your possession that were lost in the tornado, please follow these instructions:

Please determine if there is any information on the document that can link it to a specific person. Information that can link the record to a specific person includes: name, address, date of birth, medical record number, social security number, address, phone number or a combination of these. If there is no information that could link the record to specific person, please destroy the record by shredding, cutting into small pieces and disposing of the pieces, or burning.

If the medical record does contain information that can link it to a specific person, please follow these instructions:

If you are close enough, please return it to the Mercy/St. John’s command center at the Holiday Inn Convention Center, 3615 Range Line Road, Joplin, Mo., or

Send by regular US mail to the following address:
Attention: Privacy Department
St. John’s Hospital
1235 East Cherokee Street
Springfield, MO 65804

If you would like reimbursement for postage, please let us know by including a note with the record and the address where we should send the reimbursement.

Lisa Olliges of KOAM in Joplin reports on the situation at Sacred Rose Health Care:

The record room of the Sacred Rose Health Care is in the center of a mound of rubble.

Searching now for current patient’s records, some of those are not found anywhere else. Other doctors, hospitals, and stuff have lost those records also, so they are very important to us and our patients for continuity of care.

For Sacred Rose Home Health Care, the search is on for these colored binders. The demographic stuff is on computer. These held information from nurses and their notes, unfortunately. What they’re finding is nothing inside.

Dr. Mike Knapps salvaged 7 truckloads of medications, equipment and charts at his office.

“We were able to salvage some but in the end, there’s so much water damage we probably won’t get much out of them. We’ll probably just be working from scratch.” – Dr. Knapp

Dr. Knapp says some information he can get from St. John’s and Freeman hospitals where records are stored electronically.

[…]

In time, we will see “lessons learned” articles from this tornado.  We may see more people creating personal health records and storing data online as a backup of their records.  But when all is said and done, some of this is just simple decency:  if  you find someone’s medical records, treat them as if you’ve been given a great responsibility and trust, and act accordingly.

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