Essentia Health in Fargo acknowledges 'breach of patient information'
FARGO – About 430 Essentia Health patients recently received notice of a “breach of patient information” resulting from a marketing firm’s involvement in promoting an education seminar for patients.
A letter touting a “free educational event” was sent June 6 to patients suffering from lower back symptoms, inviting them to learn about “new diagnostic and therapeutic procedures.”
Jodine Wien, a Moorhead patient, complained to Essentia when she learned that her name and address had been given without her consent or knowledge to a marketing firm, Get Marketing, that was involved in sending out the invitations.
The letter announcing a June 19 seminar at Essentia Hospital asked patients to reply to an email address belonging to SI-BONE, a company that offers a “minimally invasive” implant procedure as an alternative to conventional fusion surgery of the low spine.
About 70 patients attended the seminar, held in the Innovation Room at Essentia Health in south Fargo, according to Essentia.
Essentia, in response to the complaint from Wien, wrote a letter on July 21 acknowledging a “breach of patient information” that occurred in promoting the seminar.
“I’m a little angry at Essentia,” Wien said Monday, adding that she was displeased with the health provider’s initial responses to her complaint. “I was treated completely rudely and nobody wanted to say anything.”
Vicki Clevenger, Essentia’s chief compliance and privacy officer, said no patient medical information was divulged in the “patient information breach.”
The marketing firm was provided only with the patients’ first and last name and mailing address, she said.
“There was no additional information shared, including no medical and clinical information,” Clevenger added.
The patient invitation letter was from Dr. Abdul Baker, a neurosurgeon trained at Johns Hopkins who joined Essentia Health in Fargo last December. Baker and a physician assistant, Crystal Knutson, were on hand to discuss “new diagnostic and therapeutic procedures.”
Although patients were directed to a SI-BONE email address to RSVP for the seminar, no specific therapies or procedures were promoted during the patient education seminar, Clevenger said.
“I want to make very clear that our session wasn’t a marketing session” for a medical device manufacturer or other vendor, she said. “We didn’t see this as marketing,” though Clevenger added, “I do understand that impression,” given the SI-BONE company role in confirming patient attendance at the event.
Clevenger wrote the July 21 letter to Wien and the other Essentia patients to inform them of the results of an internal investigation triggered by Wien’s complaints in early June.
Essentia determined that patients’ names and mailing addresses were “erroneously” released to Get Marketing, which was “engaged and paid by a medical device manufacturer, not Essentia Health,” Clevenger wrote Wien.
Clevenger would not say who at Essentia was responsible for providing the patient information to Get Marketing, or what, if any, disciplinary action was taken for what she said were violations of Essentia policies and procedures.
“It’s an internal matter,” she said, adding that personnel matters are considered confidential.
Despite Clevenger’s assurances, Wien worries that more than her name and address were released, since the invitation letter was targeted at patients whose sacroiliac joint problems include “degenerative disease, history of trauma, failed back surgery, pregnancy/childbirth, and other unknown reasons.”
Presumably, Wien said, someone at Essentia searched electronic medical records for patients with those conditions and provided their names and addresses to the marketing firm, the medical device manufacturer and perhaps others.
Essentia said Get Marketing “upon our request” “promptly returned” the “device that contained your information to us and stated they did not retain the data in their files,” Clevenger wrote Wien.
“We have also taken the appropriate actions according to our policies and have provided additional education to the staff members involved to prevent future occurrences,” Clevenger added.
Wien, a former paralegal who is disabled by her degenerative spine disorder, is not satisfied with Essentia’s response thus far. Now 42, Wien first was diagnosed with the condition at age 15, endures chronic pain and requires regular therapy for her deteriorating spine.
“I think it is shameful that people are making money off of my medical issues that affect me on a daily basis and have for 27 years,” she said.
Wien would like to know how many other Essentia patients’ medical information was breached.
“My medical information and I would assume that of countless others was not only a violation of Essentia’s patient’s bill of rights, it was a violation of federal and state law,” she said.
Someone at Essentia purposely provided the information to the marketers, not “erroneously” provided, and transferred with a “thumb drive” or similar portable digital storage device, Wien said.
“I cannot explain how angry I am on so many levels,” she said, adding that she wants to know whether anyone else has her information and whether it was sold.
“I no longer have confidence that my medical information is safe,” Wien added.
Asked whether patient information was sold, Clevenger said “absolutely not,” and said Essentia’s investigation did not turn up any indication that any of its employees received payments from SI-BONE in connection with the event.