Avoiding the Farrah Fawcett debacle


Farrah FawcettDr. Brady Pregerson and Nurse Rebekah Child work together at an emergency department in Southern California. That’s right. Southern California.
You can draw your own conclusions about the number of celebrities they see pass through their doors.  When I ask, they keep their lips zipped. And for good reason.

We all remember in 2007 when a hospital employee at UCLA Medical Center was convicted of tapping into Farrah Fawcett’s medical files while Fawcett battled cancer, and leaked details of her condition to the tabloids.  The employee was found to have pocketed more than $4,600 – paid by the National Enquirer – and was slapped with a felony charge of violating federal medical privacy laws.

As Fawcett goes public this week about her battle with cancer in the new NBC documentary, “Farrah’s Story,” Dr. Pregerson and Nurse Child offer tips on how to keep your job when you’re tempted to snap a picture of Kim Kardashian’s bunion….

MD said: Your hospital might give you the ax if you violate their own internal privacy policies, but the federal government can fine you big bucks and even revoke your license if the offense is considered grievous.

1. Do not put health documents in the regular trash, ever; they have to be shredded. Your department should have an appropriate receptacle.

2. Do not share your computer passwords or forget to log-off when you finish. You will be the one they come for if there has been inappropriate activity under your login name.

3. Do not print or take medical records home without permission of the hospital privacy officer.

4. Do not take pictures of patients or of their x-rays unless they are for the delivery of or documentation of health care or if they are for legitimate educational purposes. Always obtain the patient’s consent for photography and get it in writing and put it in the chart if you will be sharing the images in any way.

5. Do not discuss medical issues with the patient’s family unless the patient has authorized it. If other people are in the room always ask the patient if he or she would prefer privacy. I usually say something like, “Some people prefer their medical information to remain private. Should we ask your guest to leave or would you prefer that they stay?”

6. Finally, remember to be particularly careful with sensitive health information such as psychiatric conditions, drugs or alcohol abuse, and HIV or other communicable diseases.

RN said: Could you imagine if you left a program open with your log in ID and someone famous had just been in??

The paparazzi are very sly; perhaps they could be posing as a doctor and search Lindsay Lohan’s medical chart. Hey, it happens on soap operas.

[Side note here, taking a picture of a particularly gory and gruesome wound is like a 39 cent taco. A whole lotta lettuce and no meat. Meaning, those kind of pictures usually wield little more than shock value and minimal educational value.]

Next, if you know that you are about to discuss a particularly sensitive topic, its better to insist that the family leave THEN ask the patient if she or he would like the family brought back in to hear the news. Some people might feel pressured to keep their visitors in the room.

That’s all for now people! Get out there and save some lives and cure some diseases—all the while maintaining patient privacy of course!

ER Pocketbooks

Brady Pregerson, MD
Brady Pregerson, MD, a returned Peace Corps volunteer and winner of the 1995 Wise Preventive Medicine Scholarship, completed his medical school at the University of California, San Diego, and his residency at Los Angeles County General Hospital. He has authored three medical pocket books for nurses and doctors, as well as the educational web sites and Dr. Pregerson currently works as an emergency physician in Southern California. He writes, "Although the ED environment may be quite different from working on the hospital floor or in an office setting, I am hopeful that you can take these tips and apply them to your own specific work situation." You can buy his books on lessons from the ER, including Don't Try This At Home: Lessons from the Emergency Department and Think Twice: More Lessons from the ER, at

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