Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California called yesterday, Monday 7th April, for stronger privacy of medical records after an investigation at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Medical Center revealed unauthorized breaches of dozens of medical records, including those of his wife, first lady Maria Shriver, and 32 celebrities and politicians.

Governor Schwarzenegger told the Los Angeles Times that there has been a long history of unauthorized access to the couple’s medical records. He said he had been a victim of unauthorized “snooping” following hip, heart and shoulder operations.

The Governor told the Times that every time he left the operating room he was told that people were going through his file. They “had white coats on”, he said, and they had snuck into the hospital, “They had nothing to do with the hospital staff at all,” he told the paper.

Schwarzenegger pointed out it was not just the UCLA Medical Center, “This kind of thing has been happening all over the state, wherever there are celebrities involved”.

The Governor’s administration will be pushing for California’s hospitals to bring in new safeguards to prevent improper access to medical records, not just those belonging to celebrities.

According to the New York Times, the head of California’s health department said yesterday the agency was planning to sanction the UCLA Medical Center after an investigation revealed that hospital workers had snooped into the medical records of more than 60 patients.

The violations first came to light last May when the National Enquirer published an article about the health of the actress Farrah Fawcett, informing its readers that her cancer had returned. This news was broken before Fawcett had even told her family, reported the New York Times.

The hospital launched an investigation after Fawcett’s lawyers told them they believed that information from her medical records had been given to the press.

A spokesperson for the hospital told the New York Times they found evidence that one worker, who had since left, had improperly accessed the records of 61 patients, about half of them celebrities and politicians. There was already an intention to fire the employee, but she resigned. There was no evidence however that the employee had given information to third parties. The investigation looked at her emails and phone records.

Dr David Feinberg, chief executive of the UCLA Hospital System, apologized for the violations and referred to the former worker as a “rogue” employee, reported the Associated Press.

Earlier this year, several UCLA employees were fired or suspended after an internal audit showed a patient’s medical records had been violated. While the spokesperson did not say whose records they were, the New York Times suggested they might belong to Britney Spears, who had been admitted to the hospital’s neuropsychiatry unit a few months ago.

The California Health and Human Services Agency has now begun its own investigation. The agency has the power to fine the hospital, remove its licence, and refer its findings to law enforcement agencies.

According to the Associated Press, the agency’s secretary, Kim Belshe said on Sunday that they were “very concerned about what appears to be a pattern of repeated violations”.

Belshe said the state will be taking action against the hospital.

In a statement released on Sunday, the UCLA Health System said that they did not inform the Department of Public Health or the affected patients at the time they discovered the breach because it was “consistent with state law and based on the findings of our investigation”.

The organization explained that like all medical institutions in the US, they are working hard to strengthen information systems to protect patient privacy while at the same time making sure this doesn’t hamper authorized personnel getting hold of patient data quickly, for example when emergencies strike.

The UCLA Health System said it had stringent policies on patient confidentiality and all employees, faculty members, contractors, volunteers and other workers were required to sign confidentiality agreements and undergo extensive training.

Sources: Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Associated Press, UCLA Health System.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD