Exeter Hospital: Turning over records to state could violate patient privacy

The New Hampshire Division of Public Health Services (DPHS) ordered Exeter Hospital to release patient records as part of an ongoing investigation of the hepatitis C outbreak, thought to have originated at the community hospital, but is it legal? Exeter Hospital said it is seeking legal guidance on whether turning over private patient information to the state violates privacy laws.

So far, 32 people, including patients and a hospital employee, have been affected by David Kwiatkowski, the traveling lab technician accused of spreading hepatitis C across the nation by diverting Fentanyl and leaving contaminated needles for other patients to use.

Although Exeter Hospital said it supports the public health department's efforts "to identify all victims of David Kwiatkowski's alleged criminal activity," the state's request for "broad access" of the hospital's medical record systems may violate federal and state laws, which protect confidential patient information, the hospital said Wednesday. "The DPHS' current request extends beyond what we believe are allowed to provide in accordance with patient privacy laws," the hospital noted.

The hospital, which also faces a class-action lawsuit for allegedly failing to provide oversight of patient safety, could have even more complaints on its hands, should patients feel their legal rights to privacy are violated.

Exeter Hospital's likely cautious reaction to the state health department's request now rests with the New Hampshire Superior Court. The hospital this week filed an action, asking the court for more judicial guidance for the hospital and for the health department in "this challenging intersection between individual privacy and the DPHS' desire to examine confidential patient medical records," the hospital noted.

Meanwhile, the state public health department on Wednesday recommended the hospital narrow voluntary testing of hospital employees to 100 people, down from the original 500 employees recommended, the hospital said in a Thursday statement.

For more information:
- read the Exeter Hospital statement (.pdf) on patient privacy and the announcement (.pdf) of employee testing

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