The 56 Dean Street clinic in London, one of Britain's leading sexual health clinics, sent out an email newsletter this past Tuesday that disclosed the names and email addresses of around 780 of its patients, many of whom are living with HIV.
The newsletter was sent to patients who had signed up for the clinic's OptionE service, which allows them to book appointments and receive test results by email. Basically, the service promised to make lives easier, not unspeakably complicated.
Usually, mass emails sent to group-mailing lists hide the names and email addresses of all other recipients, but the clinic failed to do so in this case.
One HIV-positive patient whose identity was exposed in this breach noted that the National Health Service no longer had any way of "controlling who sees this information now." In the wrong hands, he said, "this list could be dynamite." Another patient expressed worry that the list of names would somehow end up on the internet for just anyone to see and use prejudicially:
Recommended: Poet-Rapper Mykki Blanco Reveals He Is HIV Positive
Every patient has a right to do their privacy, but HIV-positive patients are especially vulnerable in a society that still nurses a stigma against HIV/AIDS patients, a stigma born of ignorance and, often, a stunning lack of compassion. Institutions of healthcare have a special duty to protect the well-being of those who turn to them in need, and we don't just mean in the purely medical sense.
One patient who has been attending the clinic for five years described his profound disappointment in this clinic that he had long trusted:
"I find it impossible to believe that in this day and age this can happen. I was able to scroll down the list and identify the names of a number of people who I knew, some of whom I was unaware of their status."
Health secretary Jeremy Hunt called the mistake "completely unacceptable."
Some patients and social media users have come to the clinic's defense. Rob Sherrard, an HIV patient who has attended the clinic for two and a half years, said that it would be "tragic if this incident overshadowed all the amazing work they do" at the clinic.
"The level of care, service I've received has been second to none. I’ve always been treated like an individual and every member of staff I’ve dealt with has at some point gone the extra mile for me. It’s human error, and could’ve happened to anyone. I hope the individual responsible will be forgiven.”
Let’s change the dialogue from blaming staff for a genuine accident to asking why HIV stigma is still such a problem in 2015. @LondonLive— Tom [PositiveLad] (@PositiveLad) September 2, 2015
The clinic has apologized for the breach of data, thought to be the biggest of its kind, and has launched an investigation into the incident.