Metro

3 Boston hospitals reach $1 million settlement over patient privacy in ABC series

A scene from “Save My Life: Boston Trauma.”
ABC
A scene from “Save My Life: Boston Trauma.”

Three Boston teaching hospitals accused of compromising patient privacy by allowing television crews to film inside their facilities have settled their cases with the federal government.

The Department of Health and Human Services’ civil rights office said Thursday that the hospitals will pay about $1 million total to settle the cases. Massachusetts General Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Boston Medical Center invited ABC crews to film a documentary series in 2014 and 2015, without first obtaining authorization from patients, the government said.

The federal government initially referred to the series as “Boston Med,’’ a series that premiered in 2010. But the hospitals said the filming in question was for another ABC documentary called “Save My Life: Boston Trauma.”

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Later in the day, HHS acknowledged it had referenced the wrong series and updated its statement to reflect the correction.

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“Patients in hospitals expect to encounter doctors and nurses when getting treatment, not film crews recording them at their most private and vulnerable moments,” Roger Severino, director of the civil rights office, said in a written statement. “Hospitals must get authorization from patients before allowing strangers to have access to patients and their medical information.”

Hospital representatives defended their actions, saying the institutions did obtain consent from patients involved in the documentaries. They did not concede to violating privacy laws. In written statements, they said they wanted to resolve the cases without formal proceedings or further expense.

Mass. General agreed to pay the largest amount, $515,000. The Brigham paid $384,000 and BMC, $100,000. Each hospital also will train employees about media coverage and patient privacy as part of their agreements with the government.

A public debate about the ABC documentaries and patient privacy erupted after a crew filmed Mark Chanko’s 2011 death at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital without the Chanko family’s knowledge. That situation, which was part of the “NY Med’’ documentary series, was the focus of an article by ProPublica, the online news organization.

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Although Chanko was not identified by name on the show and his face was blurred out, his traumatized widow recognized her husband and sued ABC and the hospital, saying permission to show her husband had not been sought.

When then-Harvard Medical School Dean Jeffrey Flier read about the New York dispute in January 2015, he learned that ABC was filming a new series at two Harvard-affiliated hospitals, Mass. General and the Brigham.

He spoke to executives as the hospitals and said he was reassured that the hospitals had strong privacy and ethics policies in place to protect patients. “This [filming] could be done in a way that is entirely beneficial to health education and not violate anybody’s rights,” he told the Globe at the time.

In written statements Thursday, the hospitals said they protected patients. In a joint statement, Mass. General and the Brigham said no patients complained about the filming. “Some patients and families expressed gratitude about being given an opportunity to share their stories and experiences in a way that could help others across the nation,’’ they said.

The statement went on to say that the “hospitals believe that working with the media is a vital means of educating and informing the public about medicine and health care, reinforcing messages about disease and prevention, and providing reassurance to those who may one day require the expertise and skill of a trauma center.’’

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They said they took safeguards to protect patients, including a contract with ABC News requiring any patient included in the documentary to give explicit consent in writing. Boston Medical Center “obtained proper consent from all patients involved in this filming project,’’ said BMC Spokesman David Kibbe.

The government news release and resolution agreements provided few details. But the civil rights office seemed to fault the hospitals in part for the “timing’’ of some of the patient consent forms.

Matthew Fisher, a health care lawyer at the Worcester firm Mirick O’Connell, said misunderstandings about patient privacy rules are not uncommon, but they usually involve providers being overly cautious about releasing information. He said he was not surprised about the government’s pursuit of the settlements from the hospitals because the situation involved high-profile players.

“It’s possible the hospitals viewed this as a great marketing opportunity,’’ he said. “You just have to be very considerate about what you are doing.’’

Liz Kowalczyk can be reached at kowalczyk@globe.com.