Estranged from family, doctor snoops in records

  • Article by: LORA PABST , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 13, 2010 - 10:35 AM

Dr. Mark Schleiss, a prominent University of Minnesota researcher, was not disciplined by the state Board of Medical Practice despite a dozen violations.

As his 22-year marriage was falling apart, Dr. Mark Schleiss was desperate for information about his estranged family. Court records show that his wife, Collett, wouldn't return his phone calls. His oldest daughter refused to see him before she moved to Oregon for college. He couldn't even find out why his teenage son was seeing a physical therapist.

Locked out of his home and ignored by his loved ones, Schleiss, a prominent University of Minnesota researcher, took matters into his own hands. He used his position at the university to peek into the medical records of his wife and two teenage daughters a dozen times in 2008 and 2009, university and other records show.

The state Board of Medical Practice investigated but did not discipline Schleiss, who heads the university's pediatric infectious diseases division. Federal regulators are investigating to see if privacy laws were violated, according to e-mails sent to Collett Schleiss.

Mark Schleiss and his lawyer declined to comment unless Collett Schleiss waived her right to medical privacy.

The issue of privacy is a problem for clinics and hospitals nationwide, as snooping has become easier with the spread of electronic medical records. In most cases, experts say, health care providers simply can't stop employees from improperly looking into the files of a specific person. In a federal case, a nurse practitioner was barred from using an electronic records system after she was caught viewing her ex-husband's records.

In 2007, Park Nicollet Clinic suspended more than 100 employees for violating federal laws on patient privacy, mostly related to viewing electronic records of relatives or friends. Susan Zwaschka, Park Nicollet's general counsel, said the abuse dropped dramatically once the clinic's aggressive monitoring went public.

"We owe it to the patient to keep their record confidential," Zwaschka said. "It can have a devastating effect."

Access monitored

Collett Schleiss said her ex-husband used medical records to obtain unlisted phone numbers and other information that she said allowed him to harass family members. In December 2008, Mark Schleiss surprised his 15-year-old daughter by showing up at her doctor's appointment, even though she hadn't told him about it, records show. Collett Schleiss said he also bragged about his knowledge of her visits with a therapist, saying those sessions were causing their marital problems.

"His comments kept building up in my head until it dawned on me that he's getting actual information from somewhere," Collett Schleiss said.

Her suspicions were confirmed in June 2009, when she got letters notifying her of the privacy breaches from the university and Fairview Health Services, where family members were treated.

Four months later, Collett was told that Mark's access to medical records would be monitored for six months by the University of Minnesota Physicians, a group of faculty members who practice at various locations. In an e-mail, the group's compliance officer said Mark Schleiss had been disciplined for his "inappropriate access of medical records," but provided no details.

"He's perfectly free to do it again if he wants because there's no block" on his access, said daughter Katherine Schleiss, who is now 19. "If he had been some nurse who had done this, he would have been fired, but since he's so high up, nobody wanted to take any action against it."

Mary Koppel, a spokeswoman for the University of Minnesota Medical School, declined to comment on the Schleiss case.

Employees of the university and Fairview aren't supposed to access medical records of their spouses or children 13 and older without making a formal request.

Family claims harassment

Collett Schleiss and the family's four children complained repeatedly about Mark's alleged harassment, court records show. Collett told the divorce judge she wouldn't communicate with her husband because of his abusive phone calls. Katherine said she didn't want her father to know where she would be living in Oregon because he would subject her to "harassing phone calls, voice mails, text messages and e-mails at all hours of the day and night," according to court records.

One of the boys told police the siblings didn't talk to their father because "if we do, we encourage him to start the harassment again," police records show.

Mark Schleiss accessed Collett's records, including her visits to a therapist, about the same time custody issues were being discussed in court.

"I think he was looking for something that would be damaging to me," Collett said.

Collett said family members quit going to counseling after they found out about the breach.

In a court filing, Mark Schleiss said he regretted sending his ex-wife "many negative e-mail messages," but he denied being abusive to his family. He described himself as an "attentive father and a very engaged parent."

In August 2009, after Collett Schleiss complained to the state and his employer, a package containing five vials filled with an unknown liquid arrived at her Eden Prairie home, according to a police report. Collett Schleiss accused her husband of making terroristic threats, but he was not charged. Mark Schleiss told a police investigator he had mistakenly sent a used envelope containing what he believed was a non-toxic DNA primer.

In November 2009, the medical board said Schleiss was scheduled to visit with a board-approved physician to address the board's "concerns."

"I thought it was extremely inadequate," Collett Schleiss said. "That's basically sitting down to a lecture."

Lora Pabst • 612-673-4628

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