Four B.C. Ministry of Health employees have been fired and three have been suspended without pay while the RCMP investigate allegations the employees inappropriately accessed sensitive medical records, the ministry says.

The allegations involve the health ministry's pharmaceutical services division, which works with drug companies and researchers to determine what medications should be included in Pharmacare, CBC News has learned.

"We take all allegations of this nature very seriously," said Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid in a release Thursday. "We must ensure confidence is maintained in the integrity of the public service."

MacDiarmid said it appeared that medical information about an unknown number of British Columbians was taken and used for purposes that hadn't been approved, and that some of the people involved had relationships with each other that weren't declared.

There is no proof yet that there was any monetary gain for any of those involved.

The ministry said it had taken further action in response to the allegations, including:

  •  All ministry data sharing with drug and evidence development researchers has been temporarily suspended.
  • All work on contracts related to drug and evidence development has been suspended.
  • All spending for the pharmaceutical services division now requires approval by the assistant deputy minister.
  • The ministry will tighten its policy regarding awards of contracts to universities. All contracts entered into by the ministry will now be reviewed by the ministry's contract management branch.
  • The ministry will engage an independent consultant to review and enhance the ministry's data security measures.

CBC News has learned that the suspended research contracts are worth an estimated $4 million.

According to a statement from the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, that office was contacted by the health ministry in July about a potential privacy breach relating to patients' health data.

Officials have confirmed the investigation involves a number of research projects, but there's no information yet available on how many patients might be involved or the nature of the information that was accessed.

With files from the CBC's Stephen Smart and the Canadian Press