Fired nurse says she did nothing wrong in viewing files

Colleen Weeks received a letter of termination on Tuesday for accessing the files of more than 100 patients at St. John's-based Eastern Health. But she insists she did nothing wrong.

Weeks was a nurse with Eastern Health for more than a decade. She acknowledges she looked at the patients' files, but says her reasons were legitimate.

Weeks believes the health authority is blowing the situation out of proportion. She says her access to the files consisted of just a couple of seconds.

"I have been openly honest about all of this and I can't say any more about it," Weeks said. CBC News agreed not to show her face as a condition of the interview.

Weeks says she believes it's her duty to help patients, and part of that is looking at their medical information.

"I'm there to help the people, and I don't know how I'm going to be able to help them if I'm not able to access their records," she said.

However, Eastern Health's letter points out that she had accessed records of people to whom she was connected, including her ex-husband and her boyfriend's ex-wife.

She also looked at other files of people she knew, including a friend with a drug problem, and someone who was renting an apartment from her.

"There was a situation there where there was people banging on the doors day and night," Weeks said of the latter patient.

"I had no way to know what was going on, he had told me he had been sick. He had been in for broken ribs, he had been in for certain medical conditions ... and I didn't know if he needed help or what. It was not malice. It was for his good intention."

Eastern Health said the medical records of 122 people were accessed in the incident that saw Weeks get fired. The authority is preparing apologies for each patient.

Weeks claims her dismissal is personal, and says she's not the only one who accesses files the way she did.

"It's a common practice amongst physicians, amongst mental health nurses, amongst site clinical managers, to look up their own information, their family information, and whoever else they want to," she said.

Weeks says she was motivated by her duty to take care of the public.

Although she signed an oath of confidentiality, she feels if she needs to access someone's private information so she can help them, then it's justified.

She says she has contacted a lawyer, and plans to fight for her job.

Eastern Health CEO defends sacking Weeks

Meanwhile, Vickie Kaminski, the CEO of Eastern Health, said her organization did its part to rule out any doubt over Weeks' inappropriate conduct.

Kaminski said initially there were 144 suspicious cases in which Weeks accessed patient files.

"We took out 20 because there was a reasonable thought that she could have needed it in the line of her work but the rest were totally unconnected to anything she was doing or any time she was on a shift or any issue for her at all."

Kaminski said that they didn't consider lesser disciplinary actions because of the number of files Weeks accessed.

Other breaches netted suspensions

Kaminski added that in other breaches of confidence cases at Eastern Health employees had looked up charts of family members upon their requests, and the family members had come forward to say they didn't mean to get employees in trouble. Those employees received suspensions.

In another case, Kaminski said an employee was suspended after posting a photograph on Facebook of what was considered to be an amusing phrase on a patient's chart.

Kaminski said even though the photo did not show any identifying information, the phrase may have been recognizable to people working around that patient.

Kaminski acknowledged that up until three years ago, there were assumptions amongst some Eastern Health employees that they could look up any patient's chart, but Eastern Health has since introduced strict privacy guidelines which prohibit those actions.

"We have said to every employee, and we have spent the last two and a half years educating our employees about confidentially and reinforcing it, that where there is an egregious breach of confidentiality, you will be fired," said Kaminski.