Dog Gone Wrong

I don’t know what’s going on in New Mexico. It’s either going to the dogs or there’s something in the water that law enforcement and a few healthcare providers are drinking. Two recent stories coming out of the state sound more like a Hollywood horror film than the actions of law enforcement and healthcare professionals. These stories will be case studies on what can go wrong with a clinical staff that’s poorly trained on HIPAA laws. The events from the two stories went down something like this.

First incident – earlier this year, a New Mexico resident was pulled over and his car was surveyed by a drug sniffing dog. When the dog “hit” on the driver’s seat, he was taken by law enforcement and, against his will, was sedated and subjected to three enemas, abdominal X-rays, and a colonoscopy. Our boys in blue had obtained a search warrant, but had to “hospital shop” until they found a hospital (in a different county than the warrant authorized) and two physicians willing to do their bidding. The procedures revealed nothing, and the “patient” was ultimately released. This information came to light in a recent federal law suit filed in U.S. District Court in New Mexico.

Now, for all we know this hapless victim wasn’t so innocent, but from a HIPAA standpoint, these events are horrifying. This isn’t the first time law enforcement has attempted to seek the favor of healthcare providers, and it won’t be the last. It’s interesting to note that the first hospital these officers took their subject to denied the officers requests.  The staff at this facility certainly should have known the HIPAA laws as they pertained to this individual. Instead, the hospital has gone through a management overhaul and all parties involved are facing financial and career threatening actions.

Second incident – At an El Paso border crossing, a woman was randomly selected for additional screening. Once again, a drug sniffing dog alerted and the woman was strip searched and body cavity searched. Undeterred by their lack of findings, law enforcement officers handcuffed the woman and took her to a nearby hospital, where the dutiful doctors observed a bowel movement, performed a CT scan and conducted other exams – all without a warrant. Like the other case, this is now in the federal court system proceeding to trial. In this particular case, the ACLU is representing the victim.

I recall a saying – “it may just be that the purpose of your life may be to serve as a warning to others”. Let’s hope the experiences in New Mexico serve as a reminder to all healthcare providers that even state and federal law enforcement officials aren’t exempt from compliance nor can they compel you to violate HIPAA Privacy and Security laws. These stories truly underscore the importance of professional, and regular HIPAA training for all healthcare personnel.  And remember, HIPAA training isn’t a suggestion, it’s mandatory.

Three take aways from this story

  1. Don’t drive through or change planes in New Mexico;
  2. Every dog is NOT man’s best friend;
  3. Make sure your staff participates in regular HIPAA training, including HIPAA’s impact on law enforcement.

Oh, one final note. To add insult to injury, both unwilling patients received bills for thousands of dollars from the hospitals for their examinations and procedures.