NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Medical records are supposed to be private.
But one watchdog group said they found 50 pages of sensitive patient information out in the open in a trash bin outside a methadone clinic.
State and federal investigators are now trying to figure out what happened.
The information ended up in the hands of the Private Corrections Institute, a watchdog group that plans to turn the documents over to authorities.
But it could have been much worse if they ended up in the wrong hands.
As far as privacy goes few places require it as much as the Middle Tennessee Treatment Center, a methadone clinic that helps patients with substance abuse problems.
"As we understand it, a group of records was found in a Dumpster near the clinic," said Bruce Emery, who leads the Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services for the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Developmental.
Some documents containing the private information of more than 40 clients ended up a large unlocked trash bin. The documents contained telephone and Social Security numbers as well as accounts of medicine use and drug history.
State and federal agencies launched investigations to find out how the information got into the open.
"I was as upset as any of us would be that such personal, private information would be compromised like that," Emery said.
"We will absolutely get to the bottom of this," he said. "We take it as seriously as any client does. This is an important issue for us."
"This is information that is very personal and private," said Vanderbilt University professor Josh Perry.
He said cases such as this are especially important when dealing with substance abuse patients, who often worry their private information will be exposed and used against them.
"I think whenever you're dealing with a vulnerable population, individuals who are seeking treatment in a methadone clinic, they are particularly vulnerable, I think, to discrimination," he said.
Perry said that information mishaps can lead to trust issues between the medical community and the larger population.
"Having strict regulations and policies regarding sensitive health information is important factor to promote that sense of public trust," he said.
State officials said patient information is supposed to be kept on site for five to 10 years before documents are shredded and disposed.
Debbie Crowley, the center's chief operating officer, said the center is doing everything it can to prevent future mistakes. She said her staff takes client privacy very seriously.
It is unclear how the documents were disposed the way they were.
State officials said their investigation will likely be completed sometime next week. They said those responsible could face penalties and fines.
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