Beyond the Headlines

Family feud - public scandal

Posted: Feb 16, 2012 10:48 AM ET Last Updated: Feb 16, 2012 10:48 AM ET

Capital District Health finds itself in the middle of a family feud. One that is raising serious questions about the health authority's ability to protect your private medical files from prying eyes.
 
Several weeks ago, when Mary Schinold received a letter from Capital Health informing her that she was one of 15 Windsor-area patients whose files had been accessed without authorization, she was obviously concerned. When she received a Facebook message from her sister-in-law, Katharine Zinck Lawrence, admitting she was the one who looked at her files, she was livid. Shinold was so angry she called the Halifax Chronicle-Herald to blow the whistle on Lawrence.
 
You see, Shinold and Lawrence have not spoken to each other for more than three years. Another sister-in-law I spoke with has also severed ties with Lawrence. Neither side will talk about what precipitated the divide, but it is clearly behind this health scandal going public.
 
The scandal grew this week when Capital Health announced its audit revealed another 105 patient files had been breached by the same employee. They didn't name her but it was obviously Katharine Zinck Lawrence.
 
With these latest revelations, Lawrence agreed to meet with reporters to tell her side of the story. Lawrence, who was a registration clerk with Capital Health, admitted what she did was wrong, she said her curiosity got the better of her, and she apologized.
 
Then she dropped a bombshell.
 
Lawrence, who resigned after all this came to light, says she believes she is being singled out for something that is routine practice. She told me, "If Capital Health was to do a full audit on all employees there, it would be hard to find a few that had never, at one point or another, never did this."
In fact, she says after she left her job, she received a lot of calls of support from former colleagues who admitted they too had accessed the private files of friends and family members.
 
Capital Health disputes this. John Gillis, who speaks for the health authority, says they have checks and balances in place to keep that from happening, and they are confident their employees respect the authorities strict privacy rules.
 
But the facts of what happen raise questions about just how effective the system is.
 
Mary Schinold says Capital Health showed her documents that revealed Lawrence repeatedly accessed her medical files over a period of at least six years. They also indicate Lawrence printed many of them.
 
Lawrence says she was only caught after she made an off-hand remark to a nurse about checking her father's record to see if he had a medical appointment. That nurse reported the conversation to her manager.
 
When pressed in a second interview, Gillis admitted the health authority does not do any random audits of the electronic file system. It only investigates possible breaches of privacy if there is a complaint. But he says they are bringing in a software security program that will troll the electronic files looking for possible red flags.
 
If not for the family dynamics, all of this may very well have been dealt with quietly and with little coverage in the media. When I met with Mary Schinold I asked her if she would have handled this differently if she and Lawrence were not estranged. "If she would have come to us, sat us down as a family, and said 'my God I did this - I'm so humbly sorry', things could have been different, it could have stopped it", said Schinold.
 
But that didn't happen and now Schinold wants both Lawrence and Capital Health to pay for what happened. She wants criminal charges laid against Lawrence, and Schinold and several others are planning a class action lawsuit against Capital Health.
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About the Author

Brian DuBreuil is a veteran journalist with CBC News. He has won two Gemini awards for his work, and neither involved dancing or singing on a reality show.

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