URBANA — If you've had surgery at Carle Foundation Hospital, you signed a consent form that included an OK for the surgical team to take pictures of you during the operation.
Carle says the photos are to share with you, include in your medical records and sometimes for research and education purposes — not for what prompted an internal investigation recently: That is, surgery staff members sharing pictures they took on their own cellphones with other surgical employees because the injuries involved were so amazing.
In response to an inquiry by The News-Gazette, Carle Vice President of Surgical Services Stephanie Beever said Carle investigated three different situations involving pictures taken of surgical patients on employee cellphones last month.
Carle doesn't permit cellphones in surgery rooms or the use of personal equipment to take pictures of surgery patients, Beever said.
On all three occasions, the photographs taken had been requested by the surgeon involved for legitimate purposes, and Carle's authorized photography equipment wasn't working or available at the time, she said.
But during a subsequent investigation, Beever said, it was learned that some surgical staff members also shared some photos with other surgery employees on their cellphones, and some employees who saw the pictures weren't involved in the surgery or direct care of the patient, Beever said.
She characterized the sharing of the pictures as: "Isn't this amazing what we did to address this particular injury?"
Carle's investigation, which included the involvement of an internal compliance officer, has determined there weren't any patient privacy rights violated under the federal HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) law, Beever said.
"I hope we got a lot of people's attention," she said. "We have not breached anything at this time, but I don't want to wait until they do."
Patients coming in for surgery sign a consent form that includes acceptance of picture-taking by surgery staff and why it's done, she said.
However, Beever said, it's "absolutely our expectation that you don't use your own private equipment," she said of employees.
Carle provides equipment for those pictures, she said, but on one occasion, a camera didn't function properly, and on two occasions, the cameras couldn't be located. So employees used their cellphone cameras.
"They were pretty significant injuries, and the surgeon was moving the procedure along," she said.
Since the investigation, Beever said, there have been patients notified about what happened concerning their surgery pictures.
None of the patients were upset about it, she said, adding, "they also were amazed at their injuries."
Beever said Carle has taken steps to educate employees on policies relating to photographs and the use of personal equipment, and that was continuing as of Friday.
A back-up system for surgical camera equipment has been put into place, and an existing ban for staff on cellphones in surgery rooms has been reinforced, Beever said.
It's not just about picture-taking. It's about all the potential distractions that cellphones can cause someone involved in a surgery.
"We don't want folks being distracted," Beever said.
Presence Covenant Medical Center also asks patients to sign a consent form for photography during surgery for medical and scientific purposes, provided their identity isn't shown, and patients have an opportunity to opt out if they want, hospital spokeswoman Crystal Senesac said.