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Doctor Sued Over Prank on Unconscious Patient

By Aditi Mukherji, JD | Last updated on

Talk about a prank fail -- like, an epic fail. A California doctor is being sued by his coworker-slash-patient after he plastered her face with stickers in the shape of a mustache and tear drops (like prison tattoo teardrops, but yellow...) while she was under anesthesia. A nurse's aide then took a photo.

Unsolicited advice to Dr. Steven Yang and every other doctor: Don't "punk" your patients. Ever.

In the most unsurprising news ever, the anesthesiologist was sued by patient Veronica Valdez for allegedly violating her privacy.

Protected Health Information

Under the U.S. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), medical professionals are legally obligated to preserve the privacy of protected health information (PHI).

PHI is information that can be used to identify a patient, including information about the patient's health status or condition. It includes research data, photographs, and videos.

Here, Dr. Yang cut out and colored the stickers and strategically placed them on Valdez's face near the end of the hour-long procedure, reports the Los Angeles Times.

He and his staff members violated HIPAA when they snapped a photo of Valdez during the procedure. The hospital's lawyers deny allegations that the photo was shared on Facebook.

Regardless, pictures of patients are considered part of their health record and can't be disclosed or shared without the patient's consent.

If the patient isn't identifiable from the image, however, it's not considered PHI. Unfortunately for Valdez, she was still identifiable despite the sticker mustache.

Patient Privacy Is No Laughing Matter

HIPAA doesn't provide the right to sue in federal court, but lawsuits filed in state courts have used HIPAA standards to establish liability.

If PHI is disclosed without the patient's consent and an injury results, the patient could sue the medical provider for malpractice, invasion of privacy, or related torts.

In this case, Valdez is pursuing claims of invasion of privacy, infliction of emotional distress and other injuries.

In his deposition, Yang said, "I thought she would think this is funny and she would appreciate it," reports the Times.

Much to Yang's dismay, she's not laughing. Rather, the incident highlights the growing concern about patient privacy in the digital age.

Dr. Yang's stunt definitely merits the Awkward Turtle. His bad joke may just cost him his job.

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