ST. JOHN’S – A former nurse charged with improperly accessing the electronic records of patients told a courtroom that she didn’t break the rules. “I have never looked up anybody for any wrong reasons in my 10 years in emergency,” Colleen Weeks (pictured) told the provincial court.
Weeks, who worked as a triage nurse at Eastern Health in St. John’s, Newfoundland, has pleaded not guilty to a single charge of breaching the province’s Personal Health Information Act (PHIA).
It’s alleged that Weeks accessed records without authorization 18 times between April 18, 2011 and July 10, 2012 while working for Eastern Health.
She was originally accused of 124 incidents between July 2010 and July 2012. However, in September of last year, before the trial began, Judge Greg Brown ruled that 106 of those alleged instances pre-dated the PHIA’s one-year limitation statute.
Weeks said there were times she accessed patients’ records, but said they were for legitimate reasons, the St. John’s Telegram reported.
For instance, she said there were times when people showed up at emergency, frantic to know whether a family member was there. She said in some circumstances, she would check computer records and give them the information, unless the patient didn’t want anyone to know.
She said there were also times when doctors requested information about a patient, or she had to get information for police or information about a suspected drug addict who may have been there looking for drugs. She added she would also need to see if a patient had been transferred or had blood work or an X-ray completed.
Court records indicate Weeks accessed patients’ files for anywhere from 10 seconds to more than half an hour. The 10-second access, she said, were likely the result of typing in a wrong name.
“I’m not a typist. I’m a nurse,” she said.
The longer accesses, she said, were likely due to a computer glitch, which often caused the department’s computer to crash.
Other times, she said, she may have opened a file and suddenly gotten distracted.
But under cross-examination, Crown prosecutor Vikas Khaladkar questioned why she would access the records of a patient who wasn’t even at the hospital where she worked. One patient reportedly was only at St. Clare’s Mercy Hospital.
Weeks said that patient likely was at the Health Sciences Centre first, but left to go to St. Clare’s. She said that often happens – people walk in, give their name and leave shortly after due to the long wait, without being officially registered.
“Would you consider that patient still under your circle of care?” Khaladkar asked. Weeks said she would.
The 32-year-old was fired last year. In late April 2013, provincial information and privacy commissioner Ed Ring announced patients’ health records had been inappropriately accessed.
Ring said the investigation which led to the charges marked the first time the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner has used section 88(1)(a) of the act to lay charges against an individual.
After the health authorities contacted patients whose records were accessed, some chose to file complaints with Ring’s office. There’s also been a class-action suit filed in court.
Weeks was the final witness in the trial, which will continue Sept. 25, at which time lawyers will present their final arguments. If convicted, Weeks could either be fined up to $10,000 or jailed for a maximum six months.