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HR: Healthcare's In-House Private Eyes

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media, August 22, 2008

Fingering the next serial killer might sound like a job best suited for CSI, but in the organized chaos that is the typical healthcare organization, the best gumshoe might just be you.

At least the Hospital Association of Southern California thinks so. The association recently held a daylong workshop titled "Detecting and Preventing Serial Murders in Hospitals." It is not a topic that immediately springs to mind when one considers healthcare human resources.

The agenda included classes on the demographics of serial murder by healthcare professionals, case studies of nurses charged with serial murder, tips for evidence collection, early identification of potential serial murderers, prevention, risk management, working with law enforcement, and media relations.

In the pamphlet promoting the workshop, the association says it felt compelled to sponsor the event because of the widespread media attention focused on Charles Cullen, a nurse now serving 11 consecutive life sentences after he confessed to killing more than 40 patients in 10 hospitals in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

"As hard as it is to believe, this is not an isolated incident. Over 90 nurses and other healthcare professionals have been prosecuted for serial murder of patients in their care in 20 different countries," HASC says.

The serial killer workshop got me thinking about some other, albeit less striking, healthcare human relations trouble spots I'd read about in recent weeks. There was the case of the "rising star" hospital executive in South Florida who omitted from his resume his conviction and dishonorable discharge from the U.S. Navy for credit card theft. Rodney E. Miller also failed to tell his superiors at Memorial Healthcare System about an ongoing criminal investigation in the U.S. Virgin Islands that includes allegations of fraud and theft at a hospital Miller ran on St. Thomas.

On another topic, we have come to learn that peeking at celebrities' confidential health records has become a popular pastime at UCLA Medical Center, where so far 127 hospital employees have been named in a growing scandal. The list of celebrities whose files were compromised and whose privacy was violated includes California First Lady Maria Shriver, pop singer Britney Spears, and actress Farah Fawcett.

And then we have the heartwarming story of the hospital CEO in Los Angeles who allegedly orchestrated a scam that billed the government for bogus medical treatments performed on homeless people recruited from nearby Skid Row.

Of course, these tawdry stories do not provide an accurate snapshot of the state of the healthcare industry today. The reason they attract so much media attention, in fact, is because they happen so rarely.

But they do provide cautionary tales. Lessons can be learned from each of the examples. In the case of Cullen, for example, nurses at many of the hospitals where he committed his crimes frequently complained about his aberrant behavior; but no one listened. Does your healthcare facility have an outlet for staff to raise concerns about colleagues' behavior? Is anyone listening? Better yet, is anyone responding?

Memorial Healthcare System found out too late that its routine criminal background check on Rodney Miller did not cover his military career. Do your HR background checks provide for such contingencies? Have you look lately to see exactly what your background checks encompass and what they leave out?

What security measures do you have to ensure that patients' records remain confidential? And who is watching your CEO? What checks and balances are in place in your hospital to ensure C-Suite compliance?

Generally speaking, the healthcare industry attracts a particularly professional, disciplined, and noble breed. Whether they are involved directly in patient care or serve in administrative and leadership roles like human resources, these are people committed to the mission of healing. They understand and take quite seriously their vital role in their communities. With that burden of responsibility, people inside the healthcare industry share a common bond. They may be inclined to think that charlatans or criminals could not breach that bond. But the stories just noted show that it can happen, albeit rarely. There are wolves out there and all of us need to remember that.


John Commins is the human resources and community and rural hospitals editor with HealthLeaders Media. He can be reached at jcommins@healthleadersmedia.com.

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