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Stolen Laptop Exposes Boston Hospital Patient Data

An email attachment containing patient data was unencrypted and accessible
Boston Children's Hospital has notified patients of a potential breach stemming from a laptop stolen from a conference in Buenos Aires.

According to the hospital, a file that had been emailed to the computer contained the names, medical record numbers, birth dates, diagnoses, and procedure surgery dates for 2,159 patients. No Social Security numbers or patient financial data was exposed, the hospital says.

The laptop computer was in the possession of a Boston Children’s staff member attending a conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The laptop was password-protected but not encrypted. A file containing patient information had been sent to the laptop as an email attachment. It was determined that although the file was not saved to the laptop's hard drive, it was still on the laptop as an email attachment at the time of the theft. After an investigation, Boston Children's staff was unable to determine whether the file was accessible on the laptop.

"Boston Children's takes this incident and the protection of protected health and personal information extremely seriously," said Daniel J. Nigrin, MD, MS, senior vice president for Information Services and chief information officer, in a statement. "We take great measures to ensure that Protected Health Information is never inadvertently released, and we are undertaking additional steps to prevent breaches such as this in the future.

"We deeply regret and apologize for any concern or inconvenience this situation may cause our patients and families."

According to a recent report from Symantec (PDF), the healthcare industry was the source of 43 percent of the data breaches in 2011.

"The reported breach of 2,159 sensitive medical records of Boston Children's Hospital patients on a lost laptop is, unfortunately, the kind of story we've been hearing all too frequently from the healthcare sector," says Neil Roiter, research director at Corero Network Security. "There have been numerous recent cases across the country involving lost or stolen laptops, missing backup media, and poorly secured health record databases involving tens, even hundreds of thousands of records."

"Health care providers must take extreme care in the handling of sensitive data on laptops, mobile devices, or removable storage of any type," he notes. "As a matter of policy and procedure, they should avoid storing large numbers of records on these devices, especially if they are allowed off-premises. Laptops and other portable devices are lost or stolen with alarming frequency, and one has to wonder how many other records may be potentially at risk, waiting for a USB memory drive to be left on a coffee shop counter or a laptop forgotten in the back of a taxi at the airport."

Affected patients and their families have been notified of the breach by mail.

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