Hospital staff snooped on X-rays of eel inside man

Thirty-three health workers have been disciplined for snooping at X-rays and other information on the man who had an eel removed from inside him at Auckland City Hospital.

At least one was sacked. The rest were given verbal warnings, written warnings or final written warnings.

Mainly they had looked at computer-based radiology images, but some looked at the the man's blood-test results and the discharge summary.

Some had also distributed information outside the Auckland District Health Board.

Chief executive Ailsa Claire revealed the results of a six-month privacy-breach inquiry to the Herald last night, following a request under the Official Information Act.

"It's not happy reading," she said. "The findings are disappointing, to say the least, but we are taking action to ensure compliance with Auckland DHB policy in future."

In a story that made headlines around the world, the man sought emergency treatment at the hospital in September when an eel became stuck in his rectum. No details of the case have been officially released, but a hospital source told the Herald on Sunday at the time: "The eel was about the size of a decent sprig of asparagus and the incident is the talk of the place."

It was unclear how the eel came to be inside the man, but it was understood to have been removed.

It is understood some media received leaked copies of the X-ray but had chosen not to publish it.

Neither the Herald nor the Herald on Sunday had the image.

"Please explain" letters were sent to everyone who accessed the records, many of whom replied that they had been involved in the man's care.

Forty-nine staff - six senior doctors and medical officers, 21 junior doctors, 20 nurses/midwives and two allied staff - warranted further investigation in terms of potential disciplinary action and 33 had disciplinary action taken.

Ms Claire refused to give an occupational breakdown of the 33 to avoid the risk of identifying individuals and jeopardising the process, which was still open to appeal.

She said the patient did not make a complaint to the DHB, but had been kept fully informed throughout the investigation and had received an apology. The Privacy Commissioner was informed.

The eel investigation is not the first sacking at the DHB of staff who pry into the electronic records of patients they're not caring for. The Herald reported in 2007 that one employee had been dismissed and up to 20 others disciplined for inappropriately looking at records, including those of celebrities.

Who looked

6 senior doctors and medical officers

21 junior doctors

20 nurses/midwives

2 allied health, scientific and technical staff

Note: 33 of these 49 have been subjected to disciplinary action

- Martin Johnston, New Zealand Herald