‘I am ashamed of my actions.’

dark computer laptop

A health practitioner who inappropriately accessed electronic health records 154 times has been struck off after a colleague tipped off authorities

An enrolled nurse has been struck off the register with a non-review period of six months after she was found to have inappropriately accessed the electronic health records of 13 people including colleagues and family relatives.

The nurse, from Orange, NSW, accessed the records of one patient – who was a close friend of hers – 39 times.

She knew her friend was unwell and visited her frequently with meals, eventually admitting that she “just wanted to know the condition really”.

Between 2017 and 2019, the nurse accessed the records of one work colleague six times, and another colleague 31 times.

She even accessed the medical record of the wife of a colleague who she didn’t know personally.

The nurse said she was excited when she learned that her colleague’s wife had given birth to a child and that “probably out of curiosity” she wanted to know the gender of the baby.

Seven patients whose records she accessed were family members.

One of these was a relative who had been estranged from her husband for a few years. She accessed their records 55 times over the course of two years.

She said accessing his medical records was the only way she could see how he was doing. According to the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal, she did not accept that there could have been information in the records that the relative might not want her to see.

On each of the total 154 occasions she accessed electronic health records across the 13 patients, the nurse knew she did not have permission or authorisation from the Western NSW Local Health District to do so, nor had she obtained the patient’s prior consent. She had no clinical or therapeutic reason to access the records.

She even accessed her own electronic health records in circumstances where she knew she did not have authorisation.

In December 2019, one of the colleagues whose records she had viewed made a complaint to the Health Care Complaints Commission (HCCC).

“It came to my attention that a nurse I worked with had quite a lot of information about co-workers and patients who she never cared for, so it raised my suspicions as to why and how,” he told the Tribunal.

Eventually the colleague discovered the nurse had accessed his own medical records.

“I recall being so angry when I found out,” he said. “I was bloody humiliated as there is a lot of stuff in there l didn’t want people to know about me.

“I am constantly anxious not knowing what [the nurse] actually knows about my life as recorded in the medical notes and the possibility that she has or will share the information with others. I feel vulnerable and exposed.”

Meanwhile the nurse admitted the conduct but told the Tribunal that her intention in accessing the medical records was just to check on them about their welfare and nothing else.

In her evidence, the nurse stated that her south-east Asian heritage had an impact on her decision-making.

She stated that in her culture, “everyone knows everyone, their whereabouts, and what is happening with others. There are very few secrets”.

The nurse said she accessed the records out of compassion and care. However, when asked, she agreed that she could have shown such compassion and care without searching private medical records.

Regarding her colleague who put in the complaint, the nurse acknowledged the hurt and distress caused to him by her actions.

“I know I have caused him harm. I am ashamed of my actions. Reading his Statement makes me feel ashamed and embarrassed that I have acted poorly. I sincerely regret my conduct and if I had my time over I would not have behaved the way that I did,” she said.

While the Tribunal accepted the nurse was sorry for what she has done, it was “not persuaded that even at the time of the hearing she really understood why what she did was wrong”.

“We have formed that view because of the unsatisfactory explanations she gave for accessing the records in the first place,” it said.

“Nor do we accept that ‘socio-cultural’ factors are a satisfactory explanation of [her] conduct.”

The NSW Health Code of Conduct requires all workers to maintain the security of confidential information or sensitive official information, it highlighted.

In commencing work with the Western NSW Local Health District she agreed to abide by this code and had undergone training on it.

The Tribunal considered that the professional misconduct of the nurse was “of such a serious nature that the only disciplinary order appropriate is the cancellation of her registration”.

It ordered her to be struck off the register with a non-review period of six months.

She was ordered to pay costs to the HCCC.

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