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Victoria man receives hundreds of patient health records in error

David Mason holds up a medical record, now with concealed details, that he received on his home fax machine. - Don Denton/News staff
David Mason holds up a medical record, now with concealed details, that he received on his home fax machine.
— image credit: Don Denton/News staff

A Victoria man is fed up after receiving at least 200 faxes that contain private patient information to his personal fax machine.

David Mason said medical imaging requests that contain full names, birth dates, phone numbers, addresses, personal health numbers and doctors’ names of patients have been sent in error to his home for nearly a decade. Two of those documents contained patient information of 111 people, he said.

“Almost all these forms are to do with breast imaging and many of them are time-sensitive,” Mason said.

One digit separates Mason’s fax number from that of a well-used medical imaging clinic in Victoria.

Privacy guidelines established by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C. require physicians’ offices to include a cover sheet with clear instructions to contact the sender if the fax is received in error, said Susan Prins, the college’s communications director.

The college instructs doctors to investigate any privacy breach, contact affected patients in most scenarios and develop long-term safeguards to ensure breaches don’t reoccur.

Mason, a retired B.C. government records researcher who dealt with Freedom of Information requests daily, said he always follows up with senders but that some medical office staff seem lackadaisical about the seriousness of the privacy violation.

“The proper procedure is that the fax number is pre-programmed to avoid misdialing,” he said.

Obviously there’s a lot of doctors’ offices that have not been adhering to this,” he said. “Had this happened in the office where I used to work, there would have been an in-depth investigation.”

When the patient records first began arriving at his home, Mason said he delivered them to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of B.C. for safe destruction. (Cara McGregor, privacy commissioner spokesperson, was unable to confirm specific case information. She said anyone who continues to receive personal documents in error should notify the privacy commissioner so that a formal investigation can be launched.)

Mason now destroys the forms when they arrive after notifying the originating medical office, but said doctors need a 21st century method of sharing patient information.

In 2007, the B.C. Ministry of Health launched a 10-year program to do just that by building networked and secure electronic health record systems.

The province has since spent about $258 million on an online lab results database, medical tele-consulting technology and electronic medical record systems used internally by about 4,300 B.C. physicians, said Kristy Anderson, B.C. Ministry of Health spokesperson.

Anderson said the provincial Health Ministry was unaware of Mason’s case, but in general terms said: “We would encourage the private practices involved to work with their employees to review their processes and provide training to employees to ensure that such incidents didn’t happen again.”

Record-sharing agreements between doctors and imaging clinics are often self-directed, while the College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C. provides general ethical guidelines. For example, physicians can use email to send patient information with the patient’s consent, but only when both parties are using encryption technology.

Mason hopes that by going public, doctors will re-evaluate and better enforce their faxing policies, and that the Ministry of Health will create a more secure and standardized e-health record-sharing system.

“The only positive aspect of all of this is that the faxes came to me and not to somebody with malicious intent,” Mason said. “Had this been my own medical information going astray, I would be extremely upset.”

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