A visit to the doctor’s office is supposed to make you feel better, from a sore throat to wheezing and coughing.
But some patients are now feeling sick to their stomachs after FOX 5 uncovered a serious threat to their privacy.
This story started after a viewer contacted us concerned about what he found on his monthly visit to the Fairfax County dump.
The viewer told us there were multiple boxes with the files in them. Just like what you would see in a doctor’s office.
Boxes of medical files discovered in the recycling bin, sitting right on top of the other trash.
Inside each file, private information: health histories, test results, surgeries performed, pictures, insurance cards, addresses, even bank account information.
"The state of Virginia is very specific as it relates to disposal of medical records," says Diane Powers with the Virginia Department of Health Professions, which oversees practitioners.
She says state law mandates doctors hold onto medical records for six years after the patient’s last visit. Then they should be destroyed in a manner that protects patients’ confidentiality.
"Incineration and shredding are the chief ways medical records are disposed of in the state of Virginia," explains Powers.
Most of the patients in the files found still live in the area. We spoke to two of them.
Tisha Thompson: "You see that? That’s how we found you. It’s got your Social Security number. It’s got all kinds of stuff. So, we’re returning the files."
A file for Chip Finley and his wife both ended up in the dumpster. It was a big surprise, especially considering his line of work.
Thompson: "What do you do for a living?" Finley: "IT security."
Finley says he barely even remembers going to this doctor.
"We had just moved up to the area. And I think we may have just seen this doctor once or twice. Well I’m glad we didn’t stick with him."
Over in Reston we returned Mary Ellen Erickson’s file.
"It’s very upsetting," exclaimed Erickson. "Oh, my gosh. It even has my Virginia license on here. That’s terrible."
She hopes this was a one time mistake. "I think that person needs to be reprimanded."
FOX 5 tracked the files to the Family Health Center on Town Center Parkway in Reston.
The office is run by Dr. Eric Havens.
He declined to go on camera. But his attorney sent us a letter saying, "Dr. Havens wishes to express his deep regret that medical records of his patients were inadvertently included in the disposal of other non-medical records. This isolated incident is outside of the usual office procedures and protocols for the destruction of patients’ records."
Mistakes like this could lead to disciplinary action by the state Board of Medicine and possible penalties under the HIPAA Privacy Rule.
"We take each one of these cases extremely seriously. Each case is considered on a case by case basis," says Powers.
Former patient Erickson worries, "If this fell into the wrong hands who knows what could have happened."
Finley told us, "This is unacceptable. Certainly no way to treat customers."
But ironically, both the state and HIPAA say medical records belong to the physician. And told FOX 5 we should give them back to Dr. Havens, which we did.
His attorneys picked them up from the station. And assured us the files would be destroyed properly this time.
Dr. Havens did tell us by phone he normally shreds files on site once or twice a year. He suspects workers he hired to remove trash might have inadvertently grabbed the wrong boxes.
The state told FOX 5 patients should file a complaint if they think their records have been mishandled. Virginia has opened a case to find out if Dr. Havens violated the law.
To learn more about filing a complaint click here: