Meningitis outbreak: Health crisis superseded privacy laws

4:43 PM, Feb 9, 2013   |    comments
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State Health Department workers visited multiple hospitals daily during the early weeks of the recent deadly fungal meningitis outbreak, picking up stacks of printed patient records to be entered into databases by hand.

But it was taking too long as the number of patients rapidly grew. So for the first time during an ongoing public health emergency, agency leaders decided they needed the hospitals to allow them to access the records from their computers.

Emails obtained by The Associated Press under the state's public records law indicated that less than three weeks after the Health Department alerted the public to the meningitis outbreak, most of the hospitals involved had created an electronic tunnel that allowed the state to quickly monitor treatments and patient conditions without physically visiting each facility.

"Once we were deep into the outbreak, that was a lifesaver in terms of dealing with the complexity of the information that we were trying to handle," state epidemiologist Dr. Tim Jones said.

"Because this was so urgent and because there was so much communication going back and forth, there was no way that we could send staff out every day to all these hospitals, going back and forth with piles of records."

The outbreak of fungal meningitis and other infections has been linked to epidural steroid injections created by a Massachusetts pharmacy and has killed 45 people and sickened nearly 700 across the country.

In Tennessee, where the very first cases emerged in late September, 147 people have gotten sick and 14 have died. The Health Department was following those cases as well as collecting detailed information on approximately 1,000 people all over the state considered at risk because they received injections from the recalled lots.

Tennessee hospitals are required to report patient information on certain kinds of diseases and infections to the Health Department, and a doctor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center was in immediate contact with the agency after discovering that a rare fungal meningitis infection had killed a patient who had recently gotten a steroid injection.

Although hospitals collect much data electronically and share it that way internally, they don't normally allow medical professionals outside the institution to tap into their data system. Federal law requires them to protect a patient's privacy.

Now, Health Department officials are considering pushing legislation that would allow the agency to make arrangements with hospitals to more quickly share patient records electronically in public health emergencies.

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