PEI·CBC Investigates

P.E.I. care home employee fired after photo of deceased resident shared on Snapchat

A resident care worker was fired by Health PEI after a photo of a deceased resident at a government-run long-term care home was shared on Snapchat together with a caption described as 'very inappropriate.'

Health PEI advised to change cell phone policy after 'serious confidentiality breach' at nursing home

'A picture was taken of a deceased resident with a very inappropriate caption and then forwarded to someone outside the workplace' using the Snapchat app, according to Health PEI. (Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images)

A resident care worker was fired by Health PEI after a photo of a deceased resident at a government-run long-term care home was shared on Snapchat.

According to documents obtained by CBC News, the incident occurred sometime in the spring of 2015. Those documents state that "a picture was taken of a deceased resident with a very inappropriate caption and then forwarded to someone outside the workplace" using the Snapchat app. Documents describe the photo as a "head shot."

Health PEI conducted an investigation, interviewing more than a dozen workers at Margaret Stewart Ellis Home in O'Leary, P.E.I., as well as members of the community.

The agency concluded an employee had, over a period of months, shared with other employees multiple "inappropriate and degrading photos and videos of vulnerable residents while they were eating, sleeping, using the commode and when your co-workers were providing personal care to certain residents after a bowel movement." The documents provided to CBC News do not connect the employee who was fired with actually taking the photo of the deceased resident.

According to those documents, during the investigation the worker denied any involvement with that particular photo, and said they did "not recall" the allegations involving other photos and videos shared with co-workers.

When contacted by CBC News, the former employee said they had their own side of the story but did not wish to speak to the media.

'Grossly inappropriate'

Health PEI director of human resources Tanya Tynski would not confirm the incident had occurred.

It's very concerning, and we would, at Health PEI, investigate that thoroughly and ensure that we take appropriate action to ensure it never happened again— Tanya Tynski , Health PEI director of human resources

But Tynski told CBC News in an interview that an incident of this nature would be "grossly inappropriate, and it goes against the code of conduct for which employees at Health PEI are held accountable … It's very concerning, and we would, at Health PEI, investigate that thoroughly and ensure that we take appropriate action to ensure it never happened again."

Tynski said this type of privacy breach would also go against the pledge of confidentiality Health PEI employees sign when hired.

RCMP told CBC News they were not aware of the incident, and had not launched any investigation.

Similar incidents

While there are no other reports of similar incidents through Health PEI, across North America there's been a wave of such incidents, some of which have led to criminal charges.

The non-profit, independent news agency Pro Publica found 35 cases where workers at nursing homes in the U.S. "surreptitiously shared photos or videos of residents, some of whom were partially or completely naked," according to an article published in the Washington Post.

In 2015, B.C.'s privacy commissioner put out a call for action, citing "serious concern regarding health authority staff deliberately disclosing the sensitive personal information of patients through their own mobile devices and on social media."

The commissioner had found multiple instances where health care staff shared photos of patients on Facebook and Instagram.

B.C.'s privacy commissioner found multiple instances where health care staff shared photos of patients on Facebook and Instagram. (Karly Domb Sado/Associated Press)

'Outrageous and shocking'

Wayne MacKay, a Dalhousie law professor and the former chair of Nova Scotia's bullying and cyberbullying task force, said he was "shocked and very disappointed" to hear about the privacy breaches that have occurred on P.E.I.

"[I'm] not surprised that there's invasions of privacy by social media, it happens all the time," he said.

"But the severity of this, where you're dealing with a vulnerable person and, in one case, even a person who is dead, and not being sensitive at all to their privacy, the privacy of their friends and relatives, is outrageous and shocking to me."

Wayne MacKay, the former chair of the Nova Scotia Task Force on Bullying and Cyberbullying, called the incident 'outrageous and shocking.' (Nick Pearce)

MacKay said he's aware of similar incidents in Canada, but nothing as "extreme" as what happened in P.E.I.

He said young people in particular, who've grown up using social media, seem to show "less concern" around issues of privacy.

"One of the things that needs to happen, both with public authorities like nursing homes and others ... is making it clear that people have these privacy rights, and that those rights also apply, obviously, regardless of age or disability," he said.

"People with dementia, for example, who are particularly vulnerable, they have the same privacy [and] human rights as everybody else."

Policies already in place

According to a spokesperson for Health PEI, the agency had policies in place before these incidents occurred which should have prevented them in the first place, including a policy stipulating employees not have personal communication devices like cellphones with them during work hours.

Disclosing the process a public body carried out in the circumstances of a serious confidentiality breach is desirable in order to subject the activities of a public body to scrutiny— Karen Rose, P.E.I. privacy commissioner 

However, the investigation found most staff at the facility in question weren't following the policy and did "use their phones to talk and text at work, but not for taking pictures."

One of the recommendations from the investigative report into the incident was that changes be made to the operations manual for long-term care facilities in the area of "personal calls/cellular phone usage."

Health PEI said it later determined changes to the manual were not necessary as the policy was clear, however it did conduct an awareness campaign with staff around the existing policy.

A matter of transparency

P.E.I. privacy commissioner Karen Rose said she wasn't able to comment on the incident, but she did write a ruling regarding the Freedom of Information request filed by CBC News.

"Disclosing the process a public body carried out in the circumstances of a serious confidentiality breach is desirable in order to subject the activities of a public body to scrutiny," Rose wrote.

"Further, I agree that disclosure of this type of information does promote public health and safety, as the resulting transparency ensures that there is sufficient public knowledge of publicly operated community care facilities. In my view, such knowledge brings issues to the forefront, encourages discussions and spearheads changes, where necessary."

Rose has ordered Health PEI to release further information on the incident, giving the agency 40 days to do so.