A Southern California women’s hospital is accused of placing hidden cameras in operating rooms, where it secretly recorded scores of patients in stirrups during intimate medical procedures, including treatment after miscarriages, a lawsuit alleges.
The lawsuit, filed last week, claims the Women’s Health Center at Sharp Grossmont Hospital near San Diego invaded about 1,800 patients’ privacy over an 11-month period starting in summer 2012, filming them in vulnerable positions — sometimes unconscious, sometimes only partially robed and sometimes with their faces or genitals exposed.
These women were reportedly undergoing procedures such as Caesarean sections, hysterectomies, sterilizations and dilation and curettages (D&Cs) after miscarriages.
“It was a highly stressful and emotional time for my family and my doctor. No one ever asked me to record one of my most tender, life-changing moments,” one of the patients, Melissa Escalera, told NBC San Diego about the secretly recorded moment in September 2012 that her daughter was delivered via an emergency C-section. “I would have never agreed to be recorded in that vulnerable moment.”
Sharp Grossmont Hospital’s parent company, Sharp HealthCare, said in a statement that from July 2012 to June 2013, computer monitors with motion-activated cameras were set up to record in three operating rooms in the women’s health center as part of an investigation into medications that had gone missing from drug carts.
“Although the cameras were intended to record only individuals in front of the anesthesia carts removing drugs, others, including patients and medical personnel in the operating rooms, were at times visible to the cameras and recorded,” Sharp HealthCare said in the statement. It said it could not comment further on the case because of pending litigation but added: “We sincerely regret that our efforts to ensure medication security may have caused any distress to those we serve.”
More than 80 women claim in the lawsuit that they were filmed without their knowledge or consent at the hospital in La Mesa.
But more than that, the women say, the hospital was “grossly negligent” in how it stored their most personal and private moments — on desktop computers that numerous users could access, some without password protection.
“It’s horrifying to think that, especially in today’s day and age of the ubiquity of videos on the Internet, if one of those videos were to get in the wrong hands, there’s no controlling it. It takes your own medical care outside your own control,” Allison Goddard, an attorney for the women, told CNN. She could not immediately be reached by The Washington Post.
The lawsuit stated that the cameras had been installed on the drug carts to determine whether an employee was stealing propofol, a powerful sedative.
But according to the lawsuit, they “were set up to record when any person entered an operating room, to record a wide range of activity in the operating room beyond access to the drug cart, and to continue recording even after motion stopped,” meaning about 1,800 patients were recorded during that time.
“The cameras captured images of patients entering the operating rooms, being moved onto surgery tables and exiting. Because of the angle and placement of the cameras, patients’ faces were recorded, and the patients were identifiable,” according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit added that the recordings showed patients “conscious and unconscious, partially robed on operating room tables, undergoing medical procedures and communicating with their doctors and medical personnel. Because of the nature of these procedures, the recordings captured women while they were emotionally and physically exposed, and at their most vulnerable.”
And, according to the lawsuit, at times their “most sensitive genital areas” were visible to the camera.
Art Caplan, a professor of bioethics and head of the division of medical ethics at New York University School of Medicine, acknowledged that drug diversion in hospitals is a “huge, huge problem” but said investigations that involve patients, their identities and their private information must be handled with care and under the proper authorities.
“You better have a pretty good rationale for taping anybody,” Caplan said, adding that patients in such situations are “completely vulnerable,” often in pain and “unable to look out for their own interests.” And, he said, any sensitive material that is obtained, such as video, would need to be tightly secured; otherwise, it would violate HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), which protects patients’ personal information.
Caplan called the Sharp investigation “amateurish,” saying it was not handled ethically and that it compromised fundamental privacy rights.
“If you’re going to do a serious police investigation, you have to do a serious police investigation,” he said.