A Bedford, N.S., woman has spent more than a decade trying to plug a privacy breach that has resulted in personal mental health records being faxed to her business, and has turned to CBC News in an effort to get the faxes to stop.

Over the years, Lisa Belanger estimates she's received dozens of faxes from doctors' offices around the province, all intended for a mental health referral office. Belanger says she's been repeatedly assured that the problem would be fixed.

Nova Scotia's Personal Health Information Act says it's an offence to fail to protect personal health information in a secure manner. Anyone found guilty may be subject to a fine of up to $10,000 or imprisonment for six months, or both.

Belanger doesn't remember the date of the first fax she received in error at her spa, but she does remember the information in it.

"It was a patient who was sadly suicidal and needed to see somebody at the crisis centre," she said. "It was my first time ever seeing something like that or even being aware that something like that could be sent by those means."

Shocked by first fax

The fax, which contained the patient's name, phone number and other identifying information, as well as notes on their mental health, was from a doctor and intended for a community mental health referral office in the Bedford-Sackville area. The fax numbers for the office and Belanger's business are the same, save for one digit.

Belanger called the doctor's office to tell them the fax had been inadvertently sent to her and thought no more about it — until others started to arrive. She estimates she receives between eight and 14 a year.

She continued to report each errant fax to the doctor's office that sent it. She would then shred the document. She also forwarded them to an official at the former Capital District Health Authority, hoping someone there would take action to stop it.

"Memos were sent," she said. "This is what I was told. Memos were sent to all the physicians offices throughout Nova Scotia about taking extra care punching [the numbers] in and having the proper preset button on the fax machine. I guess it didn't happen because I received two in the last few months."

Many calls placed, little action

She says she subsequently called Health Minister Leo Glavine's office, the College of Physicians and Surgeons and the office of Nova Scotia's privacy commissioner.

"Those need to be protected in every instance," Glavine told reporters Thursday. "I find the whole incident very disturbing, very upsetting. And as a result, I want quick action on this."

Lisa Belanger

Lisa Belanger has been trying to stop mental health reports being faxed to her Bedford business for more than a decade. (CBC)

Belanger said she wanted to settle the issue quietly but her efforts have been fruitless.

"Everybody always says they are going to get the bottom of it, they are going to fix it," she said.

At one point she was told she should change her fax number, but Belanger said that doesn't solve the issue of numbers being entered improperly. She has even made suggestions on improving the way the faxes are transmitted.

Department of Health and Wellness spokesman Tony Kiritsis told CBC News the minister's office was made aware of the issue. It is concerned, he said, but there's not much it can do as it did not send or receive the information.

The College of Physicians and Surgeons said it, too, was aware of the situation, and suggested contacting the office that administers the Personal Health Information Act.

Glavine says he was aware of only a couple of complaint calls made to his department in the last year. Those were passed to the health authority. He says those complaints are now in the hands of the privacy officer for "corrective action."

The department will monitor how quickly the privacy officer addresses the issue.

'System change' needed, health authority says

Everton McLean, a spokesman with the Nova Scotia Health Authority, said doctors are independent and the authority can't tell them what to do.

However, he said they do work with physicians to try and fix the problem. McLean said they've sent several memos to family practices, reminding doctors to ensure they're using the right number for the mental health referral office.

He told CBC News the authority is looking at other options for sending sensitive material.

"There would have to be a system change, but we're willing to definitely look into situations where there's issues and find another technology," he said.

The Nova Scotia privacy commissioner's office says it has no record of Belanger's call. Spokesman Robert Bay said it would generally look at complaints from people whose privacy has been violated.

"Obviously we're a small office with limited resources, so we're going to have to consider where we're going to have the most impact," he said. "But we would certainly consider any privacy breach observations and get as much information as we can from any individuals."

'Apparent casualness' in faxing a concern

Halifax privacy lawyer David Fraser said Belanger is dealing with the faxes in a responsible manner.  

"The larger concern for me is the apparent casualness with which these documents are being faxed and also what seems to be the response when they're told that they're going to the wrong place," Fraser said.

"This suggests that the standard of care and diligence really isn't being carried out in this particular case."

​He said the provincial privacy commissioner's office is the place to handle the complaint, and said it's "incumbent upon them to investigate and find out really, in fact, what is going on."

Bay says the privacy office will not disclose whether an investigation is underway. He said in the case of human error or improperly programmed speed dial, the office would help the person fix the problem.

At his request, CBC News put him in contact with Belanger, and she has provided the privacy commissioner's office with the information it requested.