Nurse Lawfully Terminated For HIPAA Violation

The Kentucky Court of Appeals recently ruled in favor of a hospital that terminated the employment of a nurse due to HIPAA violations. The nurse had been treating a patient for Hepatitis C and made statements regarding the patient and the disease in a manner that allowed other patients and hospital personnel to overhear. Such statements included telling several colleagues, as the patient sat close by behind a privacy curtain, that they should make sure to wear gloves because of the patient’s disease.

The patient subsequently filed a complaint against the nurse, and the nurse’s employment was terminated after an investigation brought the nurse’s actions to light. The nurse then filed suit against the hospital, claiming defamation and that her termination violated public policy. The nurse’s argument was that she had in fact complied with HIPAA, and that her disclosure of the patient’s Protected Health Information was incidental, meaning it would not be actionable under HIPAA. The crux of the defamation claim was that the hospital and its employees had defamed the nurse by making it known that she had violated HIPAA.

The lower court sided with the hospital on the nurse’s public policy claim, determining that the nurse unnecessarily disclosed the patient’s Hepatitis C status, and that physicians do not require reminders to wear personal protective equipment when dealing with infectious diseases. The lower court also dismissed the nurse’s defamation claim, stating that the nurse did not disclose the minimum amount of protected health information necessary to accomplish the purpose of the disclosure, and as such neither the hospital nor its employees could defame the nurse by speaking the truth about the reason for her termination.

The Court of Appeals upheld both rulings of the lower court, adding that the nurse could not rely on HIPAA as a basis for a wrongful discharge claim because HIPAA’s confidentiality provisions exist to protect patients rather than healthcare employees.

This ruling underscores the importance of HIPAA compliance and highlights a form and setting of disclosure that one may not always associate with a violation. The ruling also stresses the implications a HIPAA violation can have on an individual committing such violation. Ultimately, this is a legal matter that likely could have been avoided in its entirety with a better understanding of the HIPAA Privacy Rule.