Physician Accused of Posting Patient Photos on Social Media

A woman who was treated for alcohol poisoning in an emergency room is suing her physician and the hospital after photographs taken of her while admitted were posted to social media sites.

Last June, Elena Chernyakova, 22, was admitted to Chicago’s Northwestern Memorial Hospital for excessive alcohol consumption, and says she and a friend requested that a mutual friend—a physician completing a fellowship at the hospital—stop by for moral support, according to local media reports. Although Chernyakova had never met the physician, Dr. Vinaya Puppala, in person, the two were in each other’s network on Facebook.

Puppala was on duty that night and, according to the lawsuit, allegedly took photos of Chernyakova without her consent and posted them to the social networks Instagram and Facebook. The photos allegedly showed Chernyakova unconscious and connected to intravenous medication, and included mocking commentary about her condition. Chernyakova is seeking damages of $1.5 million from Puppala, Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

According to the complaint filed by Chernyakova, Puppala also allegedly violated HIPAA privacy rules by accessing Chernyakova’s medical records even though he was not her attending physician, a violation the hospital confirmed in a letter to the press.

Angela Dinh Rose, MHA, RHIA, CHPS, FAHIMA, a director of HIM practice excellence at AHIMA, says that if what Chernyakova alleges is true, Puppala broke the cardinal rule of doctor-patient confidentiality, as well as HIPAA privacy laws, by accessing her medical information and taking and distributing photos without her consent.

“Bottom line—friend or not—you can only be one or the other, not both at the same time,” Rose said. “So, he was either acting as her physician in which case severe sanctions must be applied, if not termination, that would be determined based on his work history (i.e., previous violations) and organization policy on

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PHI and social media.  Or he was acting as her friend.  If he was just acting as her friend, he was still on duty and that means accessing her records was a violation as well as the pictures.”

While social media policies and best practices among clinicians are still evolving from state to state and provider to provider, a study published earlier this year in the Annals of Internal Medicine reported that a majority of state medical boards would conduct investigations into physicians “based on certain serious breaches of online professionalism, including using patient images without consent and misrepresenting credentials in an online setting.”

Additionally, the Rhode Island Board of Medical Licensure and Discipline in October issued its own “Policy Guidelines for the Appropriate Use of Social Media and Social Networking in Medical Practice.”


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