Health worker gets prison for peeking at records

A former University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) Healthcare System employee who says he had no idea it was a crime to look at patient records will have four months in prison to think about it.

United States Magistrate Judge Andrew J. Wistrich, JD, recently sentenced Huping Zhou, 47, of Los Angeles, to four months in federal prison, apparently making him the first person ever sent to prison for violating privacy laws but not using the information for other illegal activity, such as identity theft. The judge condemned Zhou for his lack of respect for patient privacy. Zhou admitted to illegally reading private and confidential medical records, mostly from celebrities and other high-profile patients, but a statement from the U.S. Attorney's office in Los Angeles says there is no evidence that Zhou improperly used or attempted to sell any of the information that he illegally accessed.

Zhou pleaded guilty in January 2010 to four misdemeanor counts of violating the federal privacy provisions of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Zhou specifically admitted to knowingly obtaining individually identifiable health information without a valid reason, medical or otherwise, according to the U.S. Attorney's office.

The U.S. Attorney's office provides this description of the crime: Zhou, who is a licensed cardiothoracic surgeon in China, was employed in 2003 at UCLA Healthcare System as a researcher with the UCLA School of Medicine. On Oct. 29, 2003, Zhou received a notice of intent to dismiss him from UCLA Healthcare for job performance reasons unrelated to his illegal access of medical records. That night, Zhou, without any legal or medical reason, accessed and read his immediate supervisor's medical records and those of other co-workers. For the next three weeks, Zhou's continued his illegal accessing of patient records and expanded his illegal conduct to include confidential health records belonging to various celebrities. According to court documents, Zhou accessed the UCLA patient records system 323 times during the three-week period, with most of the accesses involving well-recognized celebrities.

In his plea agreement, Zhou admitted that he obtained and read private patient health and medical information on four specific occasions after he was formally terminated from the UCLA Healthcare System. Zhou acknowledged that at the time he viewed these patients' medical information, he had no legitimate reason, medical or otherwise, for obtaining the personal information.