[ Wednesday, March 16, 2005 ]


The Ugly, Scary Possibilities: I've written often that most PHI is pretty innocuous. Nobody cares about the tear in your anterior cruciate ligament unless you're a professional athlete. But there are certain things included in someone's PHI that are usually or always going to be big issues. If you have diabetes, heart disease, or some other condition that will make you a likely high user of healthcare services in the future, an employer or insurance company might shy away from you if they find out. If you're a heavy user of erectile disfunction drugs, you probably don't want anyone to know about it. But the granddaddy of all of these is HIV/AIDS: that little piece of PHI is the nuclear bomb of PHI.

Which is what makes this story so scary. A statistician in the Palm Beach County Health Department accidentally attached a list of AIDS/HIV infected residents to his report when he emailed it to the rest of the department. The statistician immediately realized his mistake, and within 12 minutes the health department had shut down its email system and scrubbed the record off of it. Now, people on that list are receiving mail in plain white envelopes, no return address, stating that their names appear on a list of AIDS/HIV patients in Palm Beach County and asking them to contact the County Health Department and donate their time to the families of Palm Beach County. The letters don't seem to threaten the individuals, which makes them all the more insidious. And, the release of the information may be completely separate from the earlier email mishap, since that list did not include addresses and was caught so quickly.

The director of the County Health Department believes the letters are a hoax, but she also said "I regard this as terrorism." And in some sense, she's right.

Hat tip to Megan Charlesworth of Cook Group.

Jeff [1:50 PM]

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