Health·CBC Investigates

B.C. woman shocked to find private medical information of 10 other people in file

Wendy Charney was simply curious about what her recently retired doctor had written when she decided to look at her medical history, which he'd prepared for her to give to her new doctor. What she read was shocking and upsetting.

Details included an elderly woman’s cancer treatment test results

Wendy Charney of Merritt, B.C., was shocked to discover the disc she received of her medical history contained private medical information of ten other people in her small town. (Supplied by Wendy Charney)

Wendy Charney was simply curious about what her recently retired doctor had written when she decided to look at her medical history, which he'd prepared for her to give to her new doctor.

But when the Merritt, B.C., woman popped the disc containing her files into her computer, she was shocked at what she read: 10 different medical reports about ten different people in her small town.

"Different reports ranging from vascular surgery, to imaging, to pharmaceutical adaptations and reports from the cancer agency," she told CBC News.

Charney, 66, says the information that didn't belong in her file included test results for an elderly woman who was undergoing treatment for cancer.

"I was kind of shocked and really upset … that I was reading someone else's private information.  And then I began to wonder, 'How many people, when they got their discs, were reading information about me?'"

Privacy investigation

Charney reached out to tell her story after reading a CBC News investigation last month about problems protecting Canadians' private medical information.

A CBC News survey of every province and territory found more than 1,300 reports of privacy breaches were filed in 2015, compared to 922 in 2014, and that not all health-care providers in every province are obliged to report breaches to their respective privacy watchdogs. B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, and P.E.I. don't have legislation in effect that requires health-care providers to do so.

The investigation also discovered that six provinces — B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Quebec and P.E.I. — don't have legislation in place requiring health officials to notify the patient when his or her information is breached.

Charney spoke to the CBC's new program The Investigators about her shock when she recognized the names of some of the people whose personal information was in her file.

The Investigators with Diana Swain

The new show premieres on CBC News Network Saturday at 9:30 p.m. ET and Sunday at 5:30 p.m. ET. The program reveals the stories behind the headlines by talking to the people who break investigative stories — and those affected by them. Follow the conversation online by using #CBCInvestigators. Follow Diana on Twitter @swaindiana

Ryan-Sang Lee, spokesman for the B.C. College of Physicians and Surgeons, says the professional regulator investigates any complaint it receives about poor documentation or handling of files.

"If after an investigation into a complaint regarding improper documentation the college is critical of a physician and where it is a first instance of this finding, a formal disciplinary action outcome is unlikely; the college would usually require that the physician enrol in a course," he wrote.

Lee says the college opened six investigations into "improper documentation" in 2014, which could include cases of incomplete records or unorganized record keeping. There were no investigations in 2015.

Frequent mistakes

Charney hasn't made a formal complaint. She says she didn't notify her former doctor because he'd closed his office and moved away before she noticed the errors.

I was kind of shocked and really upset … that I was reading someone else's private information.- Wendy Charney of Merritt, B.C.

It's not clear if the mistake originated in the doctor's office or if the files were mixed up during the preparation of the disc, a task contracted to a not-for-profit company called MedRecords.

Founder Aiden Fernandes told CBC News his staff frequently see mistakes in files, which he believes often originate in doctors' offices.

"We see that a lot from John Sr.'s chart being in John Jr.'s or John Jr.'s being in John Sr.'s. Where the MOA [medical office assistant] has put another family member's record, because they have the same names, into the wrong patient's file."

Breach of privacy for medical files

6 years ago
Duration 2:16
Diana Swain talks to Wendy Charney of Merritt, B.C., about the privacy of her medical information on CBC News Network's The Investigators

Fernandes was speaking generally, and not about this specific case, but he says his staff can't always intervene to correct mistakes they spot.

"Some physicians might still be around. He may still be alive. A lot of the time they may not be."

In certain circumstances, he says, they can ask the physician for guidance on how to handle a mistake in a file before the information is put to a disc. He says in some cases they can exclude information with the doctor's consent.

CBC News reached Charney's former doctor, who now lives in Vancouver.

He said this is the first he's heard of any problems with his former files.


Multi-award-winning journalist Diana Swain is the senior investigative correspondent for CBC News and host of The Investigators on CBC News Network.