Medical records are being mistakenly sent to a school on the Clearwater Dene First Nation.
The first patient record came through the school's fax machine in March, and dozens more followed. Officials at the school estimate they have now received close to 60 private medical files by mistake.
All are addressed to patients of Dr. Vaughan Nicholls. The general practitioner had treated patients at the La Loche Health Centre for 25 years.
"Honestly, I don't want to look at the faxes," said Clearwater River School Principal Mark Klein.
He said those with cover pages appear to be coming from a variety of specialists and medical offices in Saskatoon.
Klein initially contacted the hospital to complain, and followed up with the health region. After several more months and dozens of faxes, Klein took his concerns to Saskatchewan's Information and Privacy Commissioner.
"I've been here 17 years and we've had this fax number for all 17 of those years and probably longer than that," said Klein. "It's not like we've changed our number or the health district has changed their number."
His school's fax number ends in the same four digits as the Keewatin Yatthé Health Region's main telephone line in Buffalo Narrows.
Specialists in Saskatoon say doctors provide them with fax numbers on the referral sheets that follow a patient to the specialists' offices. They also buy directories from Saskatchewan's College of Physicians and Surgeons, which are published twice a year.
Wrong number listed in medical directory
The college said the wrong fax number for Dr. Nicholls was listed in the directory it published in January, 2013. Officials there learned about the mistake in mid-February.
"We're not quite sure why or how the mistake happened, but it did, and it was in the book," said Dr. David Poulin, the deputy registrar for the college. He said four separate notices were sent to doctors and laboratories, asking them to manually correct the error. A new directory with the correct information was published in July.
"We assumed it had gone down to a trickle, if not zero, because we hadn't heard from anybody else on this since March," said Poulin.
Still, patient records continue to arrive at the school on the Clearwater Dene First Nation nearly every week.
Sask. privacy commissioner said the school is not alone
Three years ago, Saskatchewan Privacy Commissioner Gary Dickson wrote a 36-page report on the problems associated with faxing personal health information in Saskatchewan. Even so, his office is investigating 20 similar complaints over the past year, which are related to medical records being faxed to the wrong destinations.
"This isn't cutting edge technology," said Dickson. "If we're still having these kinds of problems that relate to misdirected faxes, it doesn't augur well for electronic health records, when we're going to have a whole lot more information about patients in electronic form."
He said his office can issue reports, and provide guidelines. However, it has no power to enforce the law.
"Trustees aren't doing what the law requires of them," said Dickson. "There need to be significant consequences. And in Saskatchewan nobody has ever been charged under the Health Information Protection Act, although we have had plenty of breaches, and some of them are really serious and really egregious."
Doctor said he was unaware of the issue
When CBC contacted Dr. Nicholls, he said no one ever told him patient records were going astray.
"This is the first I've heard of it," said Nicholls. "I didn't even know it was happening."
Nicholls recently moved to Stony Rapids, but said doctors in La Loche still rely on paper files to track patients. There is no electronic record-keeping at the health centre in the Dene community, which serves 3,500 residents.
"There are six doctors up there and they're all receiving information from other doctors," said Nicholls, who said he's concerned about missing information.
Each time a medical record arrives at the school, staff there now fax the documents to the health region in Buffalo Narrows, and mail the erroneous fax to Saskatchewan's Privacy Commissioner in Regina.
Officials trying to find origins of misdials
Last week, the College of Physicians and Surgeons said it would contact the Keewatin Yatthé Health Region's information and privacy officer, so it could track down the offices and laboratories using the wrong fax number, and ask them to correct it.
The college said the problem extends beyond this case.
"The issue with fax numbers occurs not infrequently," said Dr. Poulin. "There are mistakes that are made from time to time. It happens when somebody's faxing and they type in the wrong number."
He said some medical offices may have programmed the wrong number into their fax machines.
"When somebody programs in a new fax number, we'd like them to send a test fax," said Poulin. "Faxes are still used a lot in the medical system and we have a lot of concerns about that."
Health region CEO calling for electronic records
Richard Petit, the CEO of the Keewatin Yatthé Health Region, said officials have spoken with about a dozen specialists' offices and medical laboratories, to warn them not to use the school's fax number. Some have mistakenly sent several faxes to the school.
Petit said patients in La Loche should contact the health centre there, if they're concerned their records have gone astray. He said starting next week, the region will investigate each mistaken fax, to make sure that patient safety was not at risk. In the meantime, he's also pushing the province to adopt electronic health records.
"In this day and age this should not be happening," Petit said.
Klein says he and school secretaries are frustrated.
"The health district in a way is lucky because it's coming to a professional institution and we're dealing with all of the paperwork in the proper way," said Klein. "Faxes could be going to random houses or anyone with a fax machine and that's a little bit scary."
Klein noted six faxes arrived at the school during the summer months, while staff and students were on holiday.
"We're not here in the summer, and information that doctors needed to meet with those patients was sitting on our fax machine," said Klein. "That information could have sat there for three or four weeks on our fax machine without anybody noticing."
"I don't think anybody wants their medical information being randomly sent to fax numbers in the province."