Privacy-breach discipline against 24 of 48 health-care workers withdrawn

Half of the 48 health-care workers who were disciplined for allegedly accessing personal health information surrounding the case of a dying mother and the daughter she murdered, have seen the disciplinary actions against them dropped, according to their union.

Nurses union 'gratified' as actions against dozens of members dropped, including one who had been fired

Dozens of health-care workers at Calgary's South Health Campus have had disciplinary actions against them dropped, according to their union. (Scott Dippel/CBC)

Half of the 48 health-care workers who were disciplined for allegedly accessing personal health information surrounding the case of a dying mother and the daughter she murdered have seen the disciplinary actions against them dropped, according to their union.

That includes one employee who was initially fired, along with 23 others who received less stringent discipline, the United Nurses of Alberta (UNA) states in a December newsletter to members.

"We are gratified but not surprised by this outcome and pleased AHS [Alberta Health Services] has committed to learning from its actions in this situation," UNA labour relations director David Harrigan says in the newsletter.

The affected employees, who all worked in the South Health Campus emergency department, will have letters of discipline removed from their personnel files and be reimbursed for lost wages, according to the union.

Details of the incident have been shrouded by confidentiality policies, with both AHS and UNA members saying little publicly about the breach.

Confidential AHS briefing notes unearthed by CBC News through a freedom of information request show that officials investigated 160 cases of health workers allegedly accessing "current and deceased" patient records.

The initial investigation found that "48 Calgary Zone employees inappropriately accessed patient information," according to those notes, which also detailed how AHS officials initially decided not to notify the patient whose information had been accessed.

But the family did find out about the breach in time, according to Brian van Vliet, who confirmed to CBC News that it was his sister, Christine Hagan, who was at the centre of the privacy breach.

Jessica Hagan was killed by her mother, Christine, in September 2015, according to family members. No charges will be laid in the case, police said, after Christine died from cancer the following November. (Facebook)

Diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer in May and knowing she had little time left to live, Christine gave her daughter Jessica, 19, who had Down syndrome, a lethal dose of drugs in September.

Christine was kept in medical custody until her death on Nov. 21 and police announced afterward that Jessica's death had been deemed a homicide but no charges would be laid.

AHS explanation

In a statement, AHS said the decision came after further investigation and grievance-resolution meetings with UNA, as well as meetings with the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) that found "additional patient privacy education is required for employees."

"This investigation has shown us that we need to more clearly define for employees appropriate practices for accessing patient information,"  Brenda Huband, the chief health operations officer for AHS in the region, said in the statement.

"We will launch further education and training to ensure staff understand their obligations related to patient privacy so patients can remain confident their health information is being accessed appropriately."

AHS noted that the disciplinary action remains in place for employees who "clearly had no professional reason" to access the patient information in this case.

Opposition reaction

Wildrose health critic Drew Barnes said this incident is just the latest to display "a lack of transparency" at AHS.

"The privacy commissioner said that health information violations are at epidemic proportions in Alberta Health Services," he said.

"And now we have Alberta Health Services just letting the sanctions be quietly withdrawn and our New Democrat government doing nothing about it, hiding behind Alberta Health Services like the PCs used to do."

Barnes said Albertans deserve "some openness to actually what happened" in this incident, and others.

"Let's ensure that, yeah, our good, front-line workers are protected, but lets ensure that four million Albertans' important health care information and privacy is protected as well," he said.