UPDATED: Personal health information breached through misdirected faxes

Gary Dickson, Saskatchewan’s privacy commissioner, reported on Thursday the medical records of a transgendered person were faxed to school. File / Global News

REGINA – An investigation into systemic privacy breaches in Saskatchewan’s health system has found that detailed hormone therapy information of a transgender person was faxed to a school.

The finding is one example in a report by Saskatchewan privacy commissioner Gary Dickson, who looked at situations where health authorities or doctors faxed personal health information to wrong numbers.

Dickson said it’s an antiquated way to share information.

“There’s information that is faxed that is so sensitive, so obviously sensitive, you sort of say why would any trustee think it’s appropriate that this is the way to communicate this information, just because the risks are substantial with faxing,” Dickson said at a news conference Thursday.

The breaches in 2012 and 2013 affected about 1,000 patients across the province. Dickson said most involved faxing features on electronic medical records systems – not stand-alone fax machines.

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The commissioner said incorrect or outdated fax numbers were at the root of most of the breaches. He also said many of the misdirected faxes reflected inadequacies in policy, procedure and training.

A similar report was done in 2010 after several health information privacy breaches were found.

Dickson made recommendations at that time to fix the problems, but now says his optimism that changes would be made “may have been misplaced.” Some health officials in the latest investigation told him they had never heard about the 2010 report, he said.

The commissioner said he has been told that switching to electronic records will reduce breaches, but he’s skeptical.

“If I had a loonie every time a trustee I’m investigating said, ‘Oh, you know, Dickson, keep your shirt on. We’re moving to electronic medical records and all these will be in the distant past,”’ he said.

“I think the kinds of problems we’re talking about, virtually all the breaches (and) we’ve investigated plenty of them, it’s largely a matter of carelessness.”

The Health Ministry needs to provide a comprehensive manual, similar to one in Alberta, to help health professionals understand and follow health privacy legislation, Dickson suggested.

The head of the agency responsible for Saskatchewan’s electronic health records said she’s like to see an end to faxing personal health information.

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Susan Antosh of eHealth Saskatchewan said there needs to be a balance between privacy and the need to get information to people who provide patient care.

“There are certainly risks associated with faxing and eHealth is working, but it will take some time … to eliminate faxing as the methodology of getting results to care providers.

“But right now we’re not yet in a position where all of the results can be obtained electronically or, secondly, where all of the providers can receive results electronically.”

Antosh also said she believes electronic records will be “a significant part” of reducing privacy breaches.

“I’m not sure that you can ever completely eliminate the possibility of a human making an error and that is in some cases what actually occurs.”

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