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Nurses Use of Prisoner Medical Information for Personal Reasons Merits Salary Reduction

The State of Washington Personnel Appeals Board (PAB) has held a temporary salary reduction as sanction for a prison nurses act of accessing a prisoner’s medical file and using the information from the file for personal reasons rather than for health care issues related to the prisoner was appropriate.

Before the PAB was the appeal of Karen Ferguson, a nurse at the Monroe Correctional Complex. While Ferguson had only worked at the prison for 4 years, she had 30 years experience as a nurse. Thus, she was well aware of patient confidentiality rules.

On March 3, 2001, a prisoner complained to Psychologist Douglas Campbell that Ferguson was “stealing” the medications. Campbell noted the complaint in Mental Health Progress Note Primary Encounter Report Forum (PERF) and placed it in the prisoner’s medical file. A guard assigned to the prisoners unit called Ferguson at home to advise her of the allegation.

Om March 4, Ferguson accessed the prisoner’s medical file and thought it was inappropriate that her name was in the PERF because it is a legal document. The next day, she made a copy of the PERF, took it out of the prison, and scheduled a meeting with the prison superintendent.

Before that meeting, she called and met with her shop steward, who read a redacted copy of the PERF. On March 6, Ferguson and two shop stewards met with the superintendent about the matter. After that meeting, he had underlings investigate the matter.

It was determined that Ferguson neglected her duty to act in a professional manner and maintain the confidentiality of the prisoner’s medical and mental health care information when she inappropriately accessed the prisoner’ medical file for personal reasons, made a copy of the PERF note, took it outside the prison, failed to chart accessing the file and removing the information, and shared the copy with her shop steward.

The PAB found these charges were proven by a preponderance of the evidence, and that in light of Ferguson’s experience as a nurse “minimal discipline sanction of a two step three-month reduction in salary is appropriate.” See: Ferguson v. Department of Corrections, PAB No: RED-01-0029 (2007). Note: The shop steward was also disciplined. See: Burnham v. Department of Corrections, PAB No: RED 01-0027 (2002). The PAB rulings are in the brief bank.

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Related legal case

Burnham v. Department of Corrections