Nova Scotia

Privacy commissioner says doctors should move away from faxing patient referrals

The investigation was initiated after CBC News reported on a spa that received dozens of faxes sent in error from doctors' offices.

Bedford spa had received dozens of faxes with sensitive information from doctors' offices in error

Catherine Tully says if the information in the faxes had ended up in the hands of a someone who knew the patient, the harm would be close to irreparable. (CBC)

Nova Scotia's privacy commissioner says the health authority should help doctors' offices move away from faxing patient referrals following an investigation into why confidential mental health records were sent in error to a Bedford spa.

The investigation was initiated after CBC News contacted the privacy commission to inquire about the issue. Bedford businesswoman Lisa Belanger had approached CBC News out of frustration, and estimated that over the last decade her spa had received dozens of faxes from doctors' offices that were supposed to go to a mental health clinic.

Belanger was concerned about the personal information on the documents. She said she had been repeatedly assured by health officials the problem would be fixed, but the faxes continued.

Privacy commissioner Catherine Tully wrote in a report released Wednesday that momentary inattention and human error by those sending the faxes are to blame for the three cases her office examined.  

Faxes contained sensitive information

Tully noted the faxes included "highly sensitive" information, including the patient's name, detailed health information, the doctor's initial diagnosis and the challenges they faced because of the condition.

Tully said if the information had ended up in the hands of someone who knew the patient, the harm would be "close to irreparable."

The report found the likelihood of the error occurring again is heightened by the fact the fax numbers of the spa and the Bedford-Sackville Mental Health Clinic are identical except for one number.

Tully said the problem of faxes sent in error will not go away, but hopes her report will prompt the health-care professionals involved to revisit their faxing practices.

Best practices for doctors

One of the recommendations is for the Nova Scotia Health Authority to develop an electronic referral system.

Tully also recommends one person at each office be responsible for sending and receiving faxes, and that doctors preset the mental health clinic's number, review it every two years, and develop a systematic approach for sending faxes that is communicated to all staff.

The report says doctors notified each of the patients whose privacy was breached.

About the Author

Yvonne Colbert

Consumer Watchdog

Yvonne Colbert has been a journalist for nearly 35 years, covering everything from human interest stories to the provincial legislature. These days, she's focused on helping consumers get the most bang for their bucks and avoid being ripped off. She invites story ideas at yvonne.colbert@cbc.ca.