In the past few years, my Firm has handled an increasing number of cases with the Texas Board of Nursing involving social media websites and the disclosure of confidential patient information. This can be a confusing topic as there is considerable gray area as to what constitutes the impermissible release of patient information and what is an appropriate communication by a nurse in a public forum.
Every nurse is aware of the duty to safeguard patients' identities and confidential health information. Maintaining this confidentiality is a requirement under both federal and state health care privacy laws as well as one of the Texas Nursing Board's minimum standard of nursing practice. In most circumstances, nurses are well aware of how to protect patient confidentiality and are knowledgeable of the procedure to follow when it appears as though a privacy breach has occurred. The growing prevalence and usage of social media and smart phones, however, has significantly increased opportunities for the improper release of confidential information and the resulting receipt of a Board complaint.
A greater awareness of this problem has led the Texas Board to directly address this issue in both its October 2011 and April 2012 quarterly newsletters. In these articles Board Staff outline several representative scenarios involving the improper disclosure of patient information and discuss what went wrong. While limited in content, these articles are helpful in that they provide some indication of the Board's approach to this issue and general guidance on what is considered to cross the line.
A common thread through the Board's examples is the limited control a nurse can exercise over communications posted on the internet or sent via social media. As an example, one of the scenarios discussed in the Texas Board of Nursing's April 2012 quarterly newsletter involves a nurse who posted in the comment section of her local newspaper's website. Although the content of the post did not identify the patient in any way, the Board's concern was that someone familiar with the nurse or patient's family could infer the patient's identity. To the Board's credit, the article states that this nurse was only issued a warning letter informing her that any future improper disclosures could result in disciplinary action.
As seen in the above example, the posting of even veiled statements about a patient that do not disclose the patient's identify can be problematic. This is because a posting on a public website can be viewed by potentially anyone. While the same statement to one person may be sufficiently disguised to prevent a confidentiality breach, another individual may have sufficient outside knowledge to guess the patient's identity and thereby be exposed to protected health information. In contrast to a one-on-one verbal exchange, a nurse who writes about work on Facebook, an online messaging board, or even in an email, has little control on who will subsequently view it. Additionally, the nature of online communications is that they will often remain in place indefinitely.
If a nurse has disclosed confidential patient information, the Texas Board of Nursing will take into account factors such as whether it was intentional or not, the nature of the information disclosed, how it was disclosed, and what sort of remedial measures taken by the nurse to correct it. Cases where the statement at issue has been carefully obscured by the nurse in order to protect the patient's identity can often be dismissed if handled appropriately by an attorney. As stated above there is always substantial gray area where it is not clear what constitutes an improper disclosure.
In the ongoing debate on patient confidentiality and social media, it is imperative to remember that nurses should retain the ability to discuss cases amongst themselves as this is an important source of learning through shared experience as well as a way to blow off steam in what is a difficult profession. A nurse must keep in mind to do so in an appropriate manner, however, and to avoid online discussions, even in a nurses only forum, due to the lack of control over who may ultimately view the communication. The bottom-line is that the Texas Board of Nursing's general approach in this area is highly conservation and Staff frequently pursue cases against what to an independent observer would not constitute an improper disclosure.
Any nurse who is already facing an investigation by the Texas Board of Nursing for the disclosure of confidential patient information should contact an attorney. It has been the experience of the attorneys at the Leichter Law Firm that early intervention by a seasoned nursing board lawyer can substantially impact the ultimate outcome with the Texas Board of Nursing.
I have been representing nurses in disciplinary cases before the Texas Board of Nursing for over ten years. My five lawyer law firm has assisted approximately 1000 nurses in a variety of legal and nursing license matters with the Board. This includes RN’s, LVN’s and advance practice nurses such as family nurse practitioners and CRNA’s. During this time the Board’s Staff attorneys have grown in number from 2 to 6. The Board’s general counsel (Dusty Johnston) has been a constant as has the director of enforcement and the Executive Director –Katherine Thomas. The Staff has grown in number as well with additions made in investigations, enforcement and licensing.
Five years ago the Nursing Board’s case log was backed up and a nurse undergoing an investigation could expect the case to drag on for three to five years. A competent attorney who was familiar with the Board’s processes could expect an informal conference to be afforded to their Client. At this conference reasonable efforts to talk, settle or have the case dismissed would occur before Formal Charges were filed and the matter was set by the nursing board’s lawyers for a contested case hearing at the State Office of Administrative Hearings –SOAH.
Today the Texas Board of Nursing, the enforcement division and its six lawyer Staff have a much different approach. The disciplinary case comes through investigations where it is worked up by an investigator and reviewed by a supervising investigator / team leader. While the team considers material filed by the nurse and their attorney, if there is reason to believe the nurse has violated the Nursing Practice Act the nurse is sent a proposed agreed order for their review. At this juncture one can ask for an informal conference but unless the case is practice related and the evidence is tenuous the request for an informal is unlikely to be granted. Instead, the Respondent Nurse can either accept the offer or the case will move on to SOAH for the next phase of litigation. This is an emotional and difficult decision for any nurse and their attorney.
If the proposed Agreed Order is rejected formal charges are filed internally with the Board and posted on the Texas Board of Nursing’s website for public viewing. Employers often balk at nurses who have formal charges filed against them and many are fired as a result even though they are just defending themselves and their license. Although the nursing license is now tagged or marked the nurse has no ability to defend their license through discovery until the Board’s attorneys docket the matter at SOAH and formal discovery begins. This is tacitly unfair but unless the nurse through her attorney requests the matter be expeditiously docketed they just remain in limbo with a mark across their license and name.
The Texas Board of Nursing has recently created and implemented a new, confidential procedure in which to resolve disciplinary investigations. Typically, the Nursing Practice Act limits the Board’s discretion to resolve a case through anything other than a public Order. In a welcome innovation, the Board now has the authority to settle a restricted set of cases involving minor violations of the Nursing Practice Act through a confidential, non-disciplinary corrective action procedure.
Eligibility for a corrective action plan is limited and at the sole discretion of the Nursing Board’s Executive Director. A nurse may be eligible to have their case resolved through a corrective action proceeding if this is the first time they are being charged with one of the following violations:
- Practice on a delinquent (expired) license for more than six months but less than one year;
- Failure to comply with continuing competency requirements;
- Failure to verify licensure/credentials of person for whom nurse is administratively responsible;
- Failure to provide complete and accurate answers to the Board, your employers, or potential employers about matters like your employment history, licensure history, or criminal history;
- Failure to comply with Board requirements for change of name/address;
- Failure to develop, maintain, and implement a peer review plan according to peer review requirements; and
- Failure of an advanced practice registered nurse to register for prescriptive authority in an additional role and population focus area.
See 22 Tex. Admin. Code § 213.32(2)
There are several benefits to receiving a corrective action plan as opposed to a normal disciplinary order. These include:
A nurse is typically ineligible for a corrective action plan if they have committed more than one of the violations listed above. Id. at § 213.32(3). Moreover, if a case has already progressed to a contested case hearing at the State Office of Administrative Hearings, the Executive Director no longer possess the discretion to resolve a matter through corrective action.
- Not Disciplinary Action: Corrective Action is not considered disciplinary action. 22 Tex. Admin. Code § 213.32(1);
- Limited Penalty: The penalty may only be a fine, remedial education, or any combination thereof. See Tex. Occ. § 301.652(a)(1). Should a fine be imposed the amount for first time offenders is $500. 22 Tex. Admin. Code § 213.32(3). Hence a nurse doesn’t have to worry about having their license revoked or suspended or being subjected to a period of monitoring by the Board;
- Finality: Once the nurse accepts the corrective action the case is closed. Tex. Occ. Code § 301.655(a);
- Greater Confidentiality: The corrective action is not public information unlike an agreed order or a formal hearing. Tex. Occ. Code § 301.652. As a result it is not subject to public disclosure, does not appear in the Board’s Newsletter, nor is it reported to the Healthcare Integrity and Protection Databank;
- Non-Admission of Guilt: A person’s acceptance of corrective action does not constitute an admission of a violation but only constitutes a plea of nolo contendere. Tex. Occ. Code § 301.657. However, if the board imposes a sanction on the person for a subsequent violation then it may treat a person’s acceptance of corrective action as an admission of a violation. Id.
It is important to note that the Legislature has included a provision within the authorizing statute requiring that the nurse accept an offer of corrective action within twenty days of receiving the proposed resolution from the Board, otherwise the Executive Director will have to pursue the complaint via the normal investigation process which could end with a public disciplinary action. Tex. Occ. Code §§ 301.654, 301.655.
As an attorney who represents numerous nurses before the Texas Board of Nursing each year, I view this as a positive initiative which should prevent relatively minor disciplinary issues from resulting in a potentially embarrassing public order. In fact, if anything, I feel the Board of Nursing could benefit from even greater authority to resolve cases through the kind of confidential order/process that is available to other state licensing entities such as the Texas State Board of Pharmacy and the Texas Medical Board through the new Physician Health Program.
The corrective action procedure has been especially helpful in my own practice for cases involving a nurse’s isolated failure to disclose minor criminal history on a licensure or renewal application. In the past, this could only be resolved through a public remedial education order which would remain on a nurse’s record indefinitely and be published in the Board’s Newsletter.
Any nurse with an active investigation with the Texas Board of Nursing would be well advised to consult with an attorney as to whether or not their case may be eligible for resolution through a corrective action plan. As stated above, this is an opportunity which can disappear once a case has proceeded to an advanced stage leaving a nurse with a limited choice between either litigating their case to its conclusion or accepting a public disciplinary order even if the Board’s allegations are of a de minis character.
After receiving a letter of investigation from the Texas Board of Nursing and providing their initial response, it is quite common for a licensed nurse to wait for a long time prior to hearing any additional word from Board Staff. When a response does come, however, it is often in the form of a proposed Agreed Order or even a request that the nurse voluntarily surrender their nursing license. If a nurse has not yet sought legal advice from an attorney farmiliar with professional license defense, now would be the time to do so, as signing the proposed Agreed Order is a final resolution of their case and effectively serves as an express or tacit admission that the Board of Nursing’s allegations are true.
So what exactly is an Agreed Order in the context of the Texas Board of Nursing? The Nursing Practice Act, the Board’s administrative rules, and the Administrative Procedure Act authorize a state licensing board such as the Board of Nursing to resolve disciplinary cases through an Agreed Order. By signing the Agreed Order, both the licensed nurse (LVN, RN or APN) and the Board are agreeing to a legal settlement resolving all outstanding allegations in exchange for a set of requirements or stipulations to be imposed on the nurse. These stipulations can range from the active suspension of the nurse’s license, a mandate that the licensee submit to random drug testing over a number of years, a restriction on where and when a nurse can work, supervision requirements, fines, and even demands that the licensee complete additional CE courses.
A common inquiry received by my law office is whether or not a nurse who has already signed an Agreed Order which has been ratified by the full Board can now back out of its requirements. Please know that once an order has been signed and officially entered by the Board, it is extremely difficult to negate the stipulations or re-litigate the underlying allegations with the lawyers for the Board. In a small minority of cases it may be possible to modify the Order by petitioning the Nursing Board’s Eligibility and Disciplinary Committee which typically meets every other month. However; it is very rare to even be granted a hearing before the E & D Committee let alone be granted the requested relief.
A nurse should never sign an Agreed or Voluntary Surrender Order lightly and without first seeking legal advice form a lawyer who is well versed in administrative law and nursing license defense. Otherwise they will not know if the requested Order is legally justifiable or is backed up by sufficient evidence. The Board, coming from their perspective as the protector of public safety, usually seeks, at least initially, the most severe punishment which they feel is supported by their rules and various disciplinary guidelines. Oftentimes, a nurse may be able to achieve a better result with adequate representation by an experienced professional licensing attorney. I strongly urge Texas nurses to seek legal advice before signing any proposed Order; otherwise they may find themselves regretting it later or even belatedly discover they are no longer allowed to work at their preferred place of employment. Too often I see nurses who have signed Orders which they never should have been on in the first place become trapped in a downward spiral of compliance and other issues which threaten their ability to continue practicing.
Recent months have seen a sharp upswing in the Board of Nursing’s use of temporary suspension as a disciplinary measure against licensees including RN’s LVN’s, APN’s and CRNA’s. This is likely due to an influx of new attorneys, investigators, and other staff at the Nursing Board. Temporary suspension is authorized by the Nursing Practice Act (The Act), Section 301 of the Occupations Code. Tex. Occ. Code § 301. The Texas Legislature has carved out two specific areas in which temporary suspension is mandated: continuing and imminent threats to the public welfare, and “intemperate use” cases. Tex. Occ. Code § 301.455 and 4551.
First, temporary suspension is required by the Act “on a determination by a majority of the board or a three-member committee of board members designated by the board that, from the evidence or information presented, the continued practice of the nurse would constitute a continuing and imminent threat to the public welfare.” Tex. Occ. Code § 301.455(a). The Texas Legislature has also authorized the Board of Nursing to suspend or restrict a license without notice or a hearing, provided that two conditions are met. Tex. Occ. Code § 301.455(a). First, institution of proceedings for a hearing before SOAH must be initiated simultaneously with the suspension, and second, a hearing must be held “as soon as possible under this chapter and Chapter 2001, Government Code.” Tex. Occ. Code § 301.455(b)(1) and (2).Our lawyers have seen a number of cases in which a temporary suspension on this basis resulted from allegations of egregious sexual misconduct, serious criminal charges, and violence.
Second, Section 301.4551 mandates temporary suspension of a license for so-called “intemperate use” cases. These cases concern nurses who are subject to a board order prohibiting the use of alcohol and nonprescribed drugs or requiring participation in a peer assistance program. Tex. Occ. Code § 301.4551. The Board may temporarily suspend the license of such a nurse if the nurse in question tests positive for alcohol or a prohibited drug, refuses to comply with a board order to submit to a drug or alcohol test, or fails to participate in the peer assistance program and the program issues a letter of dismissal and referral to the board for noncompliance. Tex. Occ. Code § 301.4551. Our law firm has seen numerous cases in which a nurse is placed on temporary suspension if that nurse shows a pattern of repeatedly engaging in intemperate use of alcohol or other prohibited drugs, especially while at work.
Once an order of temporary suspension has been issued, the Board must hold a hearing to determine probable cause within fourteen days of the issuance of the order. Following that, a hearing on the merits must be held within sixty days. The probable cause hearing is in reality the first opportunity the nurse may get to explain their side of the story and why their nursing license should not be subject to an on-going order of temporary suspension. The hearing is held in accordance with the Administrative Procedures Act and the administrative rules governing the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH). The Board’s case is prosecuted by one of its staff attorneys and is ruled upon by an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) from SOAH.
When confronted with allegations of drug diversion or intemperate use, an employer will frequently present a nurse with a choice: either accept a referral into TPAPN or face a report to the Texas Board of Nursing. For a nurse who actually suffers from a substance abuse or chemical dependency diagnosis, acceptance of a referral toTPAPN may be a wise first step towards recovery. Nurses who do not believe they are an appropriate candidate for TPAPN, however, may want to give pause prior to pursuing that route as the restrictions and conditions imposed on a participant are onerous and will affect, sometimes drastically, their ability to continue practicing in their present capacity.
This is doubly so for Advanced Practice Nurses such as Certified Nurse Anesthetists and Nurse Practitioners. At a minimum both CRNA’s and Nurse Practitioner’s will be precluded from practicing in their respective fields for one year. Moreover, the TPAPN participation term for Advanced Practice Nurses is three years instead of the two years applicable to regular RNs and LVNs. A CRNA or Nurse Practitioner’s enrollment in TPAPN is also clearly reportable to provider networks, malpractice insurers, hospitals, and other credentialing agencies and can affect their ability to successfully enter into agreements with these entities for years to come.
A CRNA or NP who has been referred to TPAPN, or the Board of Nursing, should know there are other potential options available and I strongly advise them to speak with an attorney well versed in representation before both TPAPN and the Texas Board of Nursing prior to making a final decision. At the outset, it may be possible for you and your attorney to refute or dispel the allegations underlying the TPAPN or Board referral. Even if this is not possible, a CRNA, Nurse Practitioner, or any other nurse is not eligible to participate in TPAPN or be placed on an equivalent Board Order unless they have a diagnosis of substance abuse or chemical dependency. Depending on the allegation and the nurse’s history of use or abuse of mind-altering substances, they might not carry such a diagnosis.
Some cases may even be eligible to be resolved through a referral to the Extended Evaluation Program (EEP), a sub-program operated by TPAPN which is meant to apply to nurses who may have some history indicating an issue with drugs or alcohol but who do not carry a DSM-IV diagnosis of substance abuse or chemical dependency. A nurse in EEP is only required to verify their sobriety through one year of negative random drug screening. It does not involve any restrictions on their scope of practice or, in the case of Nurse Practitioner’s, their prescribing authority. Moreover, a nurse’s participation in EEP is confidential, not a part of the public record, and is not disclosable on credentialing and other similar applications. Furthermore, participation in EEP is not considered to be discipline under the Nursing Practice Act.
A CRNA or Nurse Practitioner who is being asked to enroll in TPAPN and who thinks this is not an appropriate route should explore their options prior to making a decision which will dramatically affect their ability to practice as an APN. The unfortunate truth is that many nurses are in TPAPN when they shouldn’t be, likely because they felt they had no other choice. Even more tragically, it is often these nurses who have the most problem complying with their participation agreement as an individual who is in a treatment program but who don’t belong there is more likely to not give sufficient attention to remaining in compliance. Completing 90 Alcoholic’s Anonymous meetings in 90 days is hard enough for someone who genuinely belongs in and can benefit from AA. It is especially difficult for someone who does not. If you are in such a situation, I emphatically suggest that you talk to an attorney and weigh your options prior to making a final decision.