Judge rules hospital must provide EMR access in hepatitis C case

New Hampshire's Merrimack County Superior Court issued an order Thursday requiring Exeter Hospital to provide access to its electronic medical record database, so public health officials can continue their investigation into a major hepatitis C outbreak.

The court recognized that state law "explicitly bestows the responsibility of conducting outbreak investigations while simultaneously protecting certain health information to the trained professionals of the DHHS."

It noted that Public Health provided a detailed explanation of how its professional investigators have and will continue to protect patient privacy while conducting the investigation and has "demonstrated that this is a professional, regulated and lawful investigation into a potentially serious health threat."

Said Anne M. Edwards, New Hampshire's associate attorney general: "The court ruled that the State's outstanding requests for information from Exeter Hospital regarding the hepatitis C outbreak are lawful and appropriate. The court rejected all of Exeter Hospital's arguments to the contrary."

[See also: Hospital EMR helps curb hep C outbreak, but privacy concerns linger.]

Exeter officials were hoping to prevent the request, stating in an October press release that “Exeter Hospital is required by state and federal law to protect our patients’ confidential medical records from inappropriate access, even by state officials.” The hospital has already given the state medical records of patients thought to be involved.

"With the court's clear pronouncement of Public Health's authority, we trust that Exeter Hospital will fully cooperate with the investigation and provide access to its business and medical records and staff for interviews so that we can efficiently and effectively determine the scope of the outbreak, identify all patients who may have been exposed so that they may get access to care and determine the mechanism in all cases so that future incidents may be avoided," said Jose Montero, director of the Division of Public Health Services.

This story stems from the case of David Kwiatkowski, a radiology technician hired by Exeter Hospital, who exposed thousands of patients to the hepatitis C virus. Officials say the hospital’s EMR allowed physicians to access integrated patient data and ultimately discover the connection to Kwiatkowski.

“Core [the hospital’s affiliated multi-specialty physician group] gastroenterologists were able to identify similarities in three individual hepatitis C cases that ultimately triggered our notification to the New Hampshire Division of Public Health Services and helped lead to the discovery of there possibly being a connection of hepatitis C cases related to Exeter Hospital,” Ryan Lawrence, an Exeter Hospital spokesperson, told Healthcare IT News this past month.