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Fawcett's cancer file breached

The incident occurred months before UCLA hospital employees were caught snooping in Britney Spears' files.

April 03, 2008|Charles Ornstein | Times Staff Writer

Months before UCLA Medical Center caught staffers snooping in the medical records of pop star Britney Spears, '70s TV icon Farrah Fawcett learned that a hospital employee had surreptitiously gone through records of her cancer treatments there, documents and interviews show.

Fawcett's lawyers said they are concerned that the information may have been subsequently leaked or sold to tabloids, including the National Enquirer.

Shortly after UCLA doctors told Fawcett that her cancer had returned -- and before she had told her son and closest friends -- the Enquirer posted the news on its website. Indeed, alarming headlines regularly cropped up in the Enquirer and its sister publication, the Globe, within days of Fawcett's treatments at UCLA.

UCLA terminated the employee who inappropriately reviewed Fawcett's records, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity.

This was the second time that Fawcett's privacy had been breached at UCLA. In a 2006 letter, one of her physicians, Gary Gitnick, informed Fawcett that a former hospital contractor had listed her name on his blog, "suggesting you are a patient and/or charitable donor of mine and UCLA."

As Fawcett, now 61, was being treated at UCLA, officials had been monitoring access to some records to guard against a privacy breach -- and found none, said Carole A. Klove, chief compliance and privacy officer for UCLA's health system.

But after the Enquirer ran its exclusive story, "Farrah's Cancer Is Back!," last May, Fawcett complained to another of her doctors, Eric Esrailian, and UCLA launched an investigation and looked at additional records systems. The hospital then discovered "multiple reviews" of her records by a worker who was not involved in Fawcett's treatment, Klove said.

Klove said the hospital found no evidence that the worker had either disclosed or sold the information she acquired. Klove would not identify the worker involved, citing privacy rules.

"Our patients need to know that they can trust that when they come to UCLA, that their information will be kept safe and secure," she said. "When and if we find inappropriate disclosures, we do take action, and that disciplinary action can include termination."

Fawcett, who appeared in the 1970s television series "Charlie's Angels," the TV movie "The Burning Bed" and a bestselling swimsuit poster, declined to comment.

Associates say the latest breach has left her shaken. She plans to meet with Dr. David Feinberg, chief executive of the UCLA Hospital System, but the meeting has been postponed several times and is being rescheduled.

"She's been invaded -- and these are the people who she entrusted her life to," said Craig J. Nevius, who is producing the upcoming documentary "A Wing and a Prayer," which chronicles Fawcett's battle with anal cancer and her efforts to protect her privacy.

One of Fawcett's lawyers, Kim Swartz, said his client was reluctant to sue over the leaked information, but added, "This is such an ugly situation.

"This has been very hard for her," Swartz said. "Not knowing who has her personal information has taken an incredible toll on her."

Fawcett no longer receives cancer care at UCLA, said Nevius, who produced a reality series featuring Fawcett. Her care is now being overseen by physicians in Germany. She receives follow-up treatment and tests at a different Los Angeles facility.

"She is cautiously optimistic," Nevius said. "Farrah has learned the hard way that with cancer, the test is time. At the moment she has no detectable cancer."

The disclosure about Fawcett comes weeks after The Times reported that UCLA was firing 13 employees and disciplining 12 others for improperly accessing Spears' electronic files while she was treated in its psychiatric hospital. At the time, UCLA officials indicated that the breach was an anomaly.

Asked this week if the records of any other high-profile patients had been perused inappropriately, Klove said, "Not to my knowledge."

As it did in the case of the Spears incident, the California Department of Public Health launched an inquiry into UCLA's handling of Fawcett's files after The Times published the news on its website Wednesday.

Even with greater attention to medical privacy in the United States, the hospital records of high-profile and other patients have been breached across the country as record-keeping systems have become computerized.

One of the most curious aspects of the snooping about Fawcett, Nevius said, is that she went by an alias when under care at UCLA -- and so the employee who viewed her records must have been privy to the alias.

Gitnick, one of Fawcett's doctors at UCLA, said he found the violation of Fawcett's privacy "despicable."

"I have nothing but disdain for people who would do such a thing and who would violate patients' confidence," he said. "We just want the best for Farrah."

Esrailian said the stories have caused Fawcett mental, and possibly even physical, harm.

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