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Source: Regina Leader-Post

Posted on February 9, 2011

Perhaps it's going to take a prosecution - and the possibility of a $50,000 fine -for the Saskatchewan government to show it really means business when it comes to protecting personal information in this province. What is clear is that suspensions and other disciplinary measures appear to be doing little to stem worrisome breaches of confidentiality by health, government and Crown corporation employees.

In the latest incident, Weyburn-based Sun Country Health Region has apologized to 66 patients whose electronic prescription records were improperly reviewed by one of its employees between March 2009 and January 2010. The breach wasn't discovered until June 2010 because no one was monitoring the system for inappropriate use - an issue now being reviewed. After a six-month investigation, letters of apology went out this week.

The breaches are bad enough, but the disclosure process is equally poor. First, the employee concerned has been disciplined (though not fired), but Sun Country refuses to say what the penalty was. Was it a demotion, a fine, or a suspension of a week or two with or without pay? The public has a right to know how seriously such breaches are being treated.

Second, Sun Country won't say what reason the employee gave its investigators for breaching the privacy of those 66 patients. Was he or she surfing though the prescription information of family, friends, neighbours, co-workers or strangers out of casual interest? Or were they passing information to a third party? The public has a right to know. After all, we were told last year that a Justice Ministry clerk accessed the SGI database to pass names and addresses to the Teamsters Union as it tried to organize a Saskatoon workplace.

We do know that the employee concerned in the latest breaches could have been a physician, nurse, pharmacist or pharmacy technician. Those are among the health-care providers who have access to the electronic records in the Pharmaceutical Information Program. Health-care professionals at this level really should know better than to abuse patient confidentiality.

The province's privacy commissioner Gary Dickson says Sun Country did a "thorough and diligent" investigation, but he's concerned about the disciplinary process. Though he added that he was not aware of the penalty in this particular case, "a minor fine or a suspension of a couple of weeks without pay ... really minimizes what I think is a much more serious matter."

Though the Health Information Protection Act has a maximum $50,000 fine for an individual and $500,000 for an organization for privacy breaches, Dickson says the provincial justice minister of the day must approve a prosecution and that has not happened.

With a comprehensive electronic health record system under construction, patients need to have confidence that the province will, if necessary, enforce privacy laws by putting those who breach them before the courts.

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