Stolen Patient Information on Hospital Computer Not Considered “Medical Information” by California Appellate Court

by Davis Wright Tremaine LLP
Contact

The California Court of Appeal recently held that the release of an index identifying hospital patients did not constitute the release of medical information under California’s Confidentiality of Medical Information Act (CMIA), Civ. Code, § 56 et seq., because the index contained only demographic information and nothing “regarding a patient’s medical history, mental or physical condition, or treatment.” Eisenhower Medical Center v. Superior Court (Malanche), Case No. E058378 (Cal. Ct. App. May 21, 2014). The Court held that “a health care provider cannot be held liable under the relevant portions of the CMIA for the release of an individual’s personal identifying information that is not coupled with that individual’s medical history, mental or physical condition, or treatment.”

The case arose when a computer stolen from the Eisenhower Medical Center (EMC) contained an index identifying over 500,000 persons who had been assigned record numbers at EMC going back to the 1980s. The information was password-protected but not encrypted. The index contained “demographic” information, listing each person’s name, medical record number, age, date of birth, and last four digits of the person’s Social Security number (SSN). When EMC gave the required notice of the theft, a number of the listed individuals brought a class action seeking “nominal” damages of $1,000 for each class member under the CMIA—which could have totaled more than half a billion dollars based upon the number of records—and asserting other related claims.

EMC moved for summary adjudication on the grounds that the computer theft did not result in a disclosure of “medical information” of any of the listed persons and sought appellate review when the motion was denied.  EMC argued that the CMIA requires a disclosure not only of “individually identifiable information” (which was concededly contained on the index) but also information “regarding a patient’s medical history, mental or physical condition, or treatment.” The Court agreed.

There was no dispute that the index contained no information of a specifically medical nature. The plaintiffs’ primary argument was that inclusion of a person’s name on the index, standing alone, constituted a release of medical history because it disclosed that he or she was a patient. In rejecting this contention, the Court found the mere disclosure that a person may once have been a patient was insufficient to establish liability. Medical information is something more than “any patient-related information” held by a provider. Under the CMIA, a prohibited release by a health care provider must reveal both “individually identifiable information” and “also include ‘a patient’s medical history, mental or physical condition, or treatment.’ This definition does not encompass demographic or numeric information that does not reveal medical history, diagnosis, or care.” The Court observed that the plaintiffs’ argument would render the clause “regarding a patient’s medical history, mental or physical condition, or treatment” entirely meaningless. The Court also noted that Civil Code Section 56.16 of the CMIA expressly authorizes hospitals to release certain categories of medical information about a patient upon request, including a general description of the reasons for treatment, the general nature of any injury, and the patient’s general condition.

Eisenhower adds to the growing body of law interpreting and generally narrowing the scope of liability under the CMIA. Eisenhower’s holding that patient identity and other personal information such as age does not constitute medical information under the CMIA is an important clarification of the statutory scheme, as was the recent ruling in Regents of University of California v. Superior Court, 220 Cal.App.4th 549 (2013). In the Regents case, the court ruled that no claim can be asserted under the CMIA unless confidential medical information actually has been viewed by some unauthorized person.

The Eisenhower Court expressly limited the reach of its opinion to its facts; a footnote mentions that the decision does not address situations involving disclosure of an individual’s status as a patient of a specialized health care provider, such as an AIDS clinic—which by itself could reveal more about that person’s medical condition, history, or treatment than the fact that the person was assigned a medical record number. In such a situation, it might be difficult for a defendant provider to argue persuasively that no medical information was disclosed. Like many recent privacy cases, Eisenhower highlights the value of encrypting patient data, whatever its content.

 

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Davis Wright Tremaine LLP | Attorney Advertising

Written by:

Davis Wright Tremaine LLP
Contact
more
less

Davis Wright Tremaine LLP on:

Readers' Choice 2017
Reporters on Deadline

"My best business intelligence, in one easy email…"

Your first step to building a free, personalized, morning email brief covering pertinent authors and topics on JD Supra:
Sign up using*

Already signed up? Log in here

*By using the service, you signify your acceptance of JD Supra's Privacy Policy.
Privacy Policy (Updated: October 8, 2015):
hide

JD Supra provides users with access to its legal industry publishing services (the "Service") through its website (the "Website") as well as through other sources. Our policies with regard to data collection and use of personal information of users of the Service, regardless of the manner in which users access the Service, and visitors to the Website are set forth in this statement ("Policy"). By using the Service, you signify your acceptance of this Policy.

Information Collection and Use by JD Supra

JD Supra collects users' names, companies, titles, e-mail address and industry. JD Supra also tracks the pages that users visit, logs IP addresses and aggregates non-personally identifiable user data and browser type. This data is gathered using cookies and other technologies.

The information and data collected is used to authenticate users and to send notifications relating to the Service, including email alerts to which users have subscribed; to manage the Service and Website, to improve the Service and to customize the user's experience. This information is also provided to the authors of the content to give them insight into their readership and help them to improve their content, so that it is most useful for our users.

JD Supra does not sell, rent or otherwise provide your details to third parties, other than to the authors of the content on JD Supra.

If you prefer not to enable cookies, you may change your browser settings to disable cookies; however, please note that rejecting cookies while visiting the Website may result in certain parts of the Website not operating correctly or as efficiently as if cookies were allowed.

Email Choice/Opt-out

Users who opt in to receive emails may choose to no longer receive e-mail updates and newsletters by selecting the "opt-out of future email" option in the email they receive from JD Supra or in their JD Supra account management screen.

Security

JD Supra takes reasonable precautions to insure that user information is kept private. We restrict access to user information to those individuals who reasonably need access to perform their job functions, such as our third party email service, customer service personnel and technical staff. However, please note that no method of transmitting or storing data is completely secure and we cannot guarantee the security of user information. Unauthorized entry or use, hardware or software failure, and other factors may compromise the security of user information at any time.

If you have reason to believe that your interaction with us is no longer secure, you must immediately notify us of the problem by contacting us at info@jdsupra.com. In the unlikely event that we believe that the security of your user information in our possession or control may have been compromised, we may seek to notify you of that development and, if so, will endeavor to do so as promptly as practicable under the circumstances.

Sharing and Disclosure of Information JD Supra Collects

Except as otherwise described in this privacy statement, JD Supra will not disclose personal information to any third party unless we believe that disclosure is necessary to: (1) comply with applicable laws; (2) respond to governmental inquiries or requests; (3) comply with valid legal process; (4) protect the rights, privacy, safety or property of JD Supra, users of the Service, Website visitors or the public; (5) permit us to pursue available remedies or limit the damages that we may sustain; and (6) enforce our Terms & Conditions of Use.

In the event there is a change in the corporate structure of JD Supra such as, but not limited to, merger, consolidation, sale, liquidation or transfer of substantial assets, JD Supra may, in its sole discretion, transfer, sell or assign information collected on and through the Service to one or more affiliated or unaffiliated third parties.

Links to Other Websites

This Website and the Service may contain links to other websites. The operator of such other websites may collect information about you, including through cookies or other technologies. If you are using the Service through the Website and link to another site, you will leave the Website and this Policy will not apply to your use of and activity on those other sites. We encourage you to read the legal notices posted on those sites, including their privacy policies. We shall have no responsibility or liability for your visitation to, and the data collection and use practices of, such other sites. This Policy applies solely to the information collected in connection with your use of this Website and does not apply to any practices conducted offline or in connection with any other websites.

Changes in Our Privacy Policy

We reserve the right to change this Policy at any time. Please refer to the date at the top of this page to determine when this Policy was last revised. Any changes to our privacy policy will become effective upon posting of the revised policy on the Website. By continuing to use the Service or Website following such changes, you will be deemed to have agreed to such changes. If you do not agree with the terms of this Policy, as it may be amended from time to time, in whole or part, please do not continue using the Service or the Website.

Contacting JD Supra

If you have any questions about this privacy statement, the practices of this site, your dealings with this Web site, or if you would like to change any of the information you have provided to us, please contact us at: info@jdsupra.com.

- hide
*With LinkedIn, you don't need to create a separate login to manage your free JD Supra account, and we can make suggestions based on your needs and interests. We will not post anything on LinkedIn in your name. Or, sign up using your email address.
Feedback? Tell us what you think of the new jdsupra.com!