Sunday, October 21, 2007


The Health Professionals and Allied Employees Union in New Jersey reports that 27 of its members have been suspended for taking unauthorized looks at actor George Clooney's medical chart in violation of federal law. Clooney was being treated at Palisades Medical Center in North Bergen, N.J., for injuries sustained when he was knocked from his motorcycle, and as many as 40 hospital workers reportedly looked at the actor's chart.

Union spokeswoman Jeanne Oterson criticized the suspensions, arguing that the hospital had "rushed to judgment" and, in addition to holding these people accountable, should have ensured that its own systems to ensure patient privacy were stronger.

Clooney subsequently issued a statement supporting a patient's right to privacy, but adding that he wished the matter could have been settled without the medical workers' being suspended.

Who is more culpable: the medical workers, for sneaking a peek at Clooney's chart, or the hospital administration, for not having in place a system that would protect against such unauthorized viewings? If Clooney, the patient, doesn't believe that the unauthorized viewers should have been suspended, should they have been?

Post your thoughts here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below. Please include your name, hometown, and state, province, or country. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column. Or e-mail your comments to me at

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of The Right Thing, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to or to "The Right Thing," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Anonymous said...

I have decided that people are just plan NOSY!!!!! Why would the medical records of someone so far remove from you be of any interest. I am amazed at how we make news of anything today. I suggest we ALL get a life and start worrying about more important things like our own health!

Anonymous said...

The medical workers bear the responsibility for doing what they should not have.

Even if Clooney didn't think they should have been suspended, bravo to the hospital for going forward anyway.

Clooney is gracious. But it doesn't help prevent future infractions if no one has to deal with repercussions for this one.

Anonymous said...

About 5 years ago, a law known as HIPAA was passed to help ensure patient privacy. All medical personnel annually sign an agreement acknowledging the law and consenting to subsequent disciplinary actions for violation of the law.

The hospital workers violated the law and their agreement to follow the law by viewing Mr. Clooney's medical file when they were not involved in his care. These people got off easy by just loosing their job; each person could also face thousands of dollars in fines for violation of HIPAA. (I am unaware if the personnel are being fined.) It is also possible they are now considered high risk employees because they willing violated the law, and they may face trouble finding new employment.

The hospital itself may also be facing fines for allowing its employees to violate HIPAA laws. It doesn't matter that Mr Clooney forgave the employees and/or the hospital for the violations; federal law was violated and the federal government can take action.

The health care workers knew their actions were wrong. They were caught and are now dealing with the consequences just as anyone else who violates laws.

Marion Bruening
Riverton, UT

Anonymous said...

PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY. Once again we demonstrate the spineless wish for someone to be held accountable other than ourselves. It is absolutely the individual employee's responsibility to respect patient medical record privacy. There is no ambiguity, as employees sign a privacy contract upon hire. The ONLY responsibility the hospital administration should have is clear instruction upon hire regarding what patient privacy means. ANY privacy system an administration puts into place can be circumvented, so personal ethics and responsibility remain the bottom line.
Elizabeth Himelson
San Clemente, California

Anonymous said...

Is failure to provide a mechanism for PREVENTING ROBBERY an ethical lapse? Even if there is a law (policy) to the effect that robbery is illegal?

No, the ethical lapse is on the part of the individual robber.

The hospital may be guilty of a criminal act (violation of HIPPA or some such?), or a failure to enforce an existing policy; but the INDIVIDUALS were guilty of the ethical lapse.

Orange Country, CA

Anonymous said...

In an age, when virtually anything about virtually anyone can be obtained electronically, it is imperative that personal information and data be kept confidential and that only those with the “rights of access” browse others’ personal, medical, and financial information. Granted, access rights exist, they are not a license to browse confidential information that ordinarily would not have the right to do so without prescribed access rights. Discretion is a must and the less access the better.

While Mr. Clooney may not frown upon the intrusion, a more litigious individual could possibly pursue legal action regarding a privacy breach subjecting the hospital to litigation and a substantial settlement. Palisades Medical Center must protect itself, ensuring compliance with prescribed HIPAA regulations.

Patrick Bouvier Fitzgerald Burris
Charlotte, NC

Anonymous said...

I agree wholeheartedly with the action taken by Palisades Medical Center for suspending health workers who violated the HIPPA act.
A patient's medical record is protected information, and the medical center can be fined thousands of dollars for this breech. But besides the unlawfulness, it is also very unethical. How would the health workers feel if someone else, who had no responsibility for a person's care, looked at their private health information?
I work as a health provider in a large HMO on the West Coast, and even though we have many safeguards in place to prevent an occurrence like this, it is still the personal integrity of the health workers that will be the deciding factor.
Shame on them.
Paula d'Hulst, CNM
I read your column in the Orange County Register, and enjoy it very much.

Anonymous said...

I work in the medical environment and I can tell you that patient privacy is a priority and it always has been, even before the Federal Government passed HIPPAA. For those employees who violated Mr. Clooney's medical privacy, suspension was the proper move for the hospital. Those employees know the law and they were wrong. For the union spokesman to criticize the hospital for not "ensuring that its own system .....was stronger" is just plain morally and ethically wrong. It is all about self responsibility of which there is a definite lack nowadays.

I read the OC Register and I live in Corona, CA.


Anonymous said...

The hospital workers are responsible for their own actions and knew they were doing wrong. Even if Clooney doesn't want them punished, they should be, for two reasons. First, because they earned it; and second, because the hospital needs to demonstrate that it won't tolerate this kind of breach.

David, Long Beach