Investigators hired to look into dumped medical records

Investigators hired by the N.W.T.'s health department are looking into how hundreds of health records wound up in the dump in Fort Simpson, N.W.T.

N.W.T. health department is looking into how hundreds of health records ended up in the Fort Simpson landfill

Elaine Keenan Bengts, the Northwest Territories information and privacy commissioner, says the health department's investigation into the ditched records will inform her own inquiry. (Mario De Ciccio/CBC)

Investigators hired by the Northwest Territories health department are looking into how hundreds of health records wound up in the dump in Fort Simpson, N.W.T.

"They're doing all the heavy lifting on this in terms of figuring out what happened because they have the resources to do it, they have the background, the history," Elaine Keenan Bengts, the territory's information and privacy commissioner, told a standing committee of N.W.T. MLAs on Monday.

Last month, a man in Fort Simpson contacted CBC to report that he found the health records, which included applications to addictions treatment facilities and detailed notes from counselling sessions.

Keenan Bengts was asked about the discovery — which she has said amounts to a "major breach" of patients' privacy — while presenting on her 2017-18 annual report.

She said a report from the health department's investigation will inform her own inquiry.

It's unclear whether the health department's report will be made public.

A man in Fort Simpson said he found hundreds of medical files at the Fort Simpson dump. (Hilary Bird/CBC)

Keenan Bengts said that even though some of the documents were created decades ago, they are still covered by the Health Information Act, which came into force in 2015.

The act dictates how health information may be used and disclosed.

Records fall through the cracks

A question mark looms over who was in charge of the ditched health records.

The MLA for the region said that according to the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority, all its medical files are accounted for.

"My understanding, during the 1990s, '80s, this type of service was contracted out to different organizations, so they would be the ones who were in control of the files," Shane Thompson, MLA for Nahendeh, told CBC.

"However, we're not too sure if they had control or [if] the government did, and that's what the investigation is trying to find out."

Nahendeh MLA Shane Thompson said he wants to see a budget that supports intake to the social work and teacher education programs at Aurora College. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

Keenan Bengts suspects there are other medical records out there that have been misplaced.

"I think the department is already considering where else should we be looking for files like this," she said.

Scrap the fax machine

Keenan Bengts took Monday's meeting to chide the medical profession's use fax machines when there are much simpler and more secure means of communication.

In the period of Keenan Bengts's annual report which was released in October, there were 22 privacy breaches reported by health officials.

Nine of those involved a fax that ended up in the wrong place. Medical records were accidentally faxed to CBC several times in 2010 and 2012.

For some reason the medical profession is reluctant to adopt more secure technology.- Elaine Keenan Bengts, Northwest Territories information and privacy commissioner

"For some reason the medical profession is reluctant to adopt more secure technology," she said. "It makes no sense to me."

In her report, Keenan Bengts says health information is some of the most sensitive personal information "and it should be treated accordingly."

Elaine Keenan Bengts said faxes sent from health centres like the Stanton Territorial Hospital in Yellowknife have wound up in the wrong hands. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

The use of faxes in the health sector continues to be a nation-wide problem, she said.

In her report, she encourages the Department of Health and Social Services to abandon the fax machine.

Health information breaches rise

Under the Health Information Act, the information and privacy commissioner must be notified any time personal health information is lost, stolen or inappropriately accessed.

Keenan Bengts said her office saw a "significant increase" in the number of files opened under the Health Information Act in 2017-18 — 33 files, up from eight in 2016-17.

But she said this is a positive development because it indicates that health officials are now recognizing breaches when they happen and are taking steps to avoid similar breaches from happening in the future.

With files from Richard Gleeson