It has been revealed that employees at Thompson Health’s M.M. Ewing Continuing Care Center in Canandaigua, New York, have been caught breaching HIPAA privacy regulations by taking photographs and videos of at least one resident. The employees are reported to have used Snapchat, one of the most popular social media platforms in the world, to share these photos and videos, without receiving the resident’s consent to do so. It is possible that more than one resident at the facility may have been affected by the privacy violations.
Several employees are said to have been caught sharing photographs and videos in this shocking breach of the resident’s privacy. Thompson Health has already fired some of the employees involved, after conducting their own internal investigation. The organisation have condemned the breach of patient privacy at the nursing home. In addition to the internal investigation, the New York Department of Health and the New York Attorney General’s office have sought to instigate their own investigation on how the patient’s privacy was violated by so many staff members at the facility.
Rachel Shippee, the Deputy Press Secretary to the state attorney general confirmed to the Daily Messenger, a local daily newspaper, that an investigation has been launched. In the statement, she said “The Medicaid Fraud Control Unit’s mission includes the protection of nursing home residents from abuse, neglect and mistreatment, including acts that violate a resident’s rights to dignity and privacy.”
Following their own inquiry into the incident, spokespeople for Thompson Health stated that the organisation does not believe that the images or videos were only shared with a restricted group of employees at the center, and that the media was never shared with a member of the public or made public at any stage. Thompson Health is in the process of contacting the families of the residents affected by the incident in order to offer an apology for the way in which their family member was treated by staff.
Thomson Health was involved in a previous scandal involving the violation of privacy of residents at the nursing home. The previous incident, which occurred in January 2018, became public after a camera was discovered illegally recording patients in a unisex bathroom at Thompson Hospital. The camera was immediately removed form the site, and an investigation was launched into this gross violation of the privacy of many residents of the home. However, despite the camera being removed immediately upon its discovery, the memory card had been already been taken from the device. Due to the sensitive nature of the issue, local law enforcement was noted of the privacy breach. Despite an investigation into the incident, the person responsible for setting up the camera was never identified.
Unfortunately, incidents such as what happened at the M.M. Ewing Continuing Care Center are not uncommon. Several nursing homes have discovered their staff breaching HIPAA regulations and violating the right to privacy of their patients in recent times. Many of these incidents involve residents being photographed and videoed without obtaining consent to do so. Although in the case of the Thomson Health nursing home the media was only shared between members of staff at the facility, it is becoming increasingly common that staff members will share their photographs and videos social media networks.
In 2015, ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning nonprofit investigative journalism newsroom, released a report on an investigation they conducted into the sharing of images of abuse of nursing home residents. The investigation revealed the practice of sharing illegally obtained media was commonplace among staff, with several nursing home employees discovered to have performed similar acts as to what had been discovered in the M.M. Ewing Continuing Care Center. According to ProPublica’s researchers, there had been 22 cases of photo sharing on Snapchat and other social media platforms and 35 cases in total since 2012.
For example, a nursing assistant at the Parkside Manor assisted-living facility in Kenosha, WI., was discovered to have taken photos of an Alzheimer’s patient and posted the images of SnapChat. When the violation was discovered, the nursing assistant was fired for the HIPAA breach.
Following ProPublica’s report of the high number of cases involving these types of HIPAA violations, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) sent a memo to state health departments reminding them of their responsibilities to ensure nursing home residents were not subjected to any form of abuse. The memo explicitly mentioned the duty of care to protect residents of nursing homes from mental abuse, which included the taking of demeaning and degrading photos and videos and having the multimedia content shared on social media networks.