Patient privacy at stake in Ohio abortion case

Physicians are fighting a demand for broad access to a clinic's medical records.

By Amy Lynn Sorrel — Posted Dec. 29, 2008

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The privacy of hundreds of minor patients' medical records lies in the hands of the Ohio Supreme Court as it deliberates a case over alleged violations of the state's abortion consent law.

The parents of a 14-year-old girl who had an abortion without their consent allege Planned Parenthood Southwest Ohio Region repeatedly ran afoul of the state statute that requires physicians to obtain written parental permission before performing an abortion on a minor. To prove their case, the parents claim they need access to 10 years' worth of medical records on minors who sought abortions.

The family also charges that the clinic failed to report suspected child abuse. The teenage girl became pregnant by her 21-year-old soccer coach, who posed as her father to help her obtain an abortion, according to court records.

Planned Parenthood denies any wrongdoing and maintained in court documents that the records -- which do not involve parties to the lawsuit -- are irrelevant and protected under the state's physician-patient privilege.

Doctors agree and fear that if the information is released, not only will patients' confidentiality be compromised, so will their access to care.

"We have to make sure the physician-patient privilege means something," said Nancy Gillette, general counsel to the Ohio State Medical Assn. The organization filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, along with the Litigation Center of the American Medical Association and State Medical Societies and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

State law generally protects nonparty medical records from disclosure in lawsuits, Gillette said. If that privacy is not protected, patients --especially minors -- will be less likely to seek treatment.

A trial court initially granted the family's request for the documents, with specific patient-identifying information removed. An appeals court rejected the lower court decision in 2007.

Plaintiffs appealed to the state Supreme Court, where oral arguments were heard Oct. 7. A decision is expected by spring.

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