Updated: July 11, 2011 at 12:00 am
A city nurse who lost her job after accessing a Memorial Hospital patient database said she was unfairly targeted because of her psychic abilities.
Lori Niell, who was an occupational health nurse for the city for eight years, said she made her supervisors uncomfortable so they accused her of accessing the encrypted and password-protected Physician Link patient database to find the medical history of patients and use that information to pretend to be a psychic.
“I certainly did not misuse anyone’s medical information because I have integrity,” Niell said.
“I remain uncharged and unarrested and I expect to remain that way.”
Hospital and city officials contend that Niell accessed the records of 2,500 Memorial Hospital patients without cause. A police investigation is under way.
She had access to the database but she was not a Memorial employee, and had no medical or other work-related reason for accessing the hospital’s records, said hospital spokesman Brian Newsome.
“From my understanding, she was accessing the records when she wasn’t at work,” Newsome said. “She wasn’t doing it as part of her job.”
The hospital is contacting the patients by mail, and is working with the U.S. Office of Civil Rights, which is responsible for investigating patient privacy complaints.
Officials allege that Niell accessed the records for “personal” reasons, but did not elaborate. However, Newsome said it did not appear the records were being accessed to commit identify fraud.
Niell denied that she had accessed “anywhere close to“ 2,500 records but admitted to the Gazette Monday night that she did use the database for personal reasons, such as to look up the phone number of a friend that she had lost. However, she said that using the database that way is common practice for many in the medical community.
“That’s my crime, but as far as this other allegation, absolutely ridiculous. I wouldn’t dream of doing what they’re accusing me of,” she said. “I guarantee that accessing the database for stuff like that is rampant in the medical community. If you talked to other medical people, you’d find out that it’s pretty damn common.
“If they are going to get me for that, they would have to get a tremendous number of people for that.”
She said she is being investigated because her supervisors were uncomfortable with her psychic ability. Niell, who said she has had three near-death experiences, said she was often able to get a psychic reading from people she was around. Once, she said, she was recognized by the city after correctly warning a patient he was close to a heart attack and advised him to seek immediate treatment.
“The city gave me a plaque for life-saving intervention,” she said. “They liked it when it worked for them but didn’t like it when I made them uncomfortable.”
Niell said her supervisor was looking for a way to fire her after Niell told her about a possible life-threatening condition and the supervisor became angry. Niell admitted she later accessed the database to see if the supervisor heeded her advice and sought treatment.
City spokesman John Leavitt said Niell became a target of an investigation after her supervisor noticed unusual activity on the system, including how many times it was being accessed and from where it was being accessed. Memorial was notified on May 20.
“What I was told is that the patterns were unusual enough to cause some concern, so it seemed prudent to bring it to the attention of Memorial Hospital and ask them to investigate,” Leavitt said.
Colorado Springs Police Department Sgt. Steve Noblitt said police have uncovered a motive but would not divulge it. No arrests have been made.
Niell said her house was surrounded by police officers with guns drawn on June 22. With a search warrant, they seized two computers, personal papers and more than 20 years of journals she had kept.
“I was using those journals to work on a book, and now they say they can hold onto them for up to two years,” she said.
Niell said that tensions between her and her supervisor became so tense that she resigned on May 20, but city officials told her they would have fired her had she not resigned. She suspects the city made her case public because officials are worried about information she has from a deceased city employee who has been speaking to her from beyond the grave.
“It’s a power play,” she said. “They are showing me how strong they are. I know for a fact that they are pushing me because there is a dead city employee with important information who I have access to.”
She would not elaborate on the name of the dead employee or the type of information she had.
Newsome said Memorial has created a task force to look into beefing up security, and it’s looking into software systems to more quickly alert hospital officials to unusual activity surrounding medical records.
Patients who are concerned about their records or want more information can call 1-866-283-9930.