Nurse Faces 12-Months Suspension for Disclosing Patient Information to New Employer

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A nurse practitioner has had her license to practice suspended for 12 months by the New York State Education Department because of a violation of patient privacy. Martha C. Smith-Lightfoot took the PHI of approximately 3,000 patients from University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) in April 2015. Then, she gave the spreadsheet containing personally identifiable information to Greater Rochester Neurology, her new employer. URMC only discovered the privacy violation when patients complained that Greater Rochester Neurology contacted them to switch provider.

Before leaving URMC, Smith-Lightfoot asked for a copy of patient information to ensure continuity of care. The information included patients’ names, birth dates, addresses and diagnoses. Smith-Lightfoot took the spreadsheet when she left her job. While URMC provided her with the PHI to ensure continuity of care, that did not extend to taking the information to her new employer.

Smith-Lightfoot impermissibly disclosed patient PHI to Greater Rochester Neurology which was a clear violation of the HIPAA Privacy Rule. When URMC discovered what had happened, Greater Rochester Neurology was contacted and told to return the patient list. The information was recovered and secured and the incident was reported to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

OCR investigates all breaches of PHI that impact more than 500 patients, although in this instance a HIPAA fine was not issued. State attorneys general are also permitted to issue fines for HIPAA violations, and that right was exercised by the New York state attorney general. URMC was fined $15,000 by attorney general Eric Schneiderman over the privacy breach.

While Smith-Lightfoot did not face criminal penalties for the HIPAA violation, action was taken by the New York State Education Department. Smith-Lightfoot admitted disclosing PII to her new employer and signed a consent order with the state nursing board office in November 2017. She has now had her license is suspended for 12 months and when she returns to practice, she remain on probation for two years.