Fine the snoops

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It’s an interesting idea — and perhaps one whose time has come. Earlier this week, Eastern Health once again had to come forward and tell the province that it had caught employees improperly accessing patient records. This time, it was two clerks working in a rural clinic who had accessed the medical records of 46 people. One quit, the other was fired.

The revelations came on the heels of five other firings at Eastern Health and a similar case at Western Health, along with lawsuits against both health-care corporations.

In the age of computers, electronic records and the ability of curious staff to access records at the press of a button, it’s beginning to look like the health corporations are facing a serious problem.

But it’s not only in this province. In British Columbia, four health employees were fired and three were suspended in early September for the improper use of medical records. There, the RCMP is investigating.

Last week, Manitoba’s acting ombudsman, Mel Holley, issued a report on a privacy breach in that province’s health records system, where an employee accessed the cancer care records of a neighbour’s daughter. Holley has advised the Manitoba government to take its penalties far beyond a simple firing — he’s asked that government to bring in rules such as those found in Alberta, where the inappropriate accessing of medical records carries a whopping personal risk. Alberta health-care workers don’t just jeopardize their jobs if they snoop, they can actually be hit with serious fines. In 2007, a worker was fined $10,000 for accessing records improperly.

Manitoba has fines of up to $50,000 for inappropriately using medical information, but the fines don’t apply to those who have simply gained access to such information. Holley wants penalties to apply to snoopers in that province as well.

The Manitoba government says it plans to follow Holley’s recommendations.

In this province, the clearest example of privacy penalties is found in the province’s privacy legislation, which allows for fines of up to $5,000 for anyone who “wilfully discloses personal information.” As in Manitoba, the legislation does not seem to apply to individuals who simply snoop through others’ records, unless they actually disclose the details. This province also has health information legislation, which carries a $10,000 fine — but that fine has never been used.

Hefty fines clearly won’t solve every single problem where nosy people snoop in records that are at their electronic fingertips. But if there are clear and heavy penalties, including fines and dismissal, and if employees know that their use of medical records systems are being monitored and regularly audited, it may go a long way toward preventing more abuse, and preventing more stories like the ones we’ve heard all too many of recently.

Organizations: Western Health, RCMP

Geographic location: Manitoba, Alberta, British Columbia

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Recent comments

  • More audits needed
    September 16, 2012 - 12:16

    I agree with strong penalties for this type of snooping. Along with Eastern Health, the Canada Revenue Agency, Chartered Banks, etc. also need to monitor employees who do not take the responsibility of their employment seriously. The improper reviewing of information is no different, ethically, than stealing.

  • Bernice
    September 16, 2012 - 12:04

    I think it is time for Eastern Health and other Health Corps. to put into place software that only allows employees to access only patient files that they have in their care. For example if a nurse is working on 5SB then she can only access the patients on that floor and if they try to enter another patient file it should be red flagged to indicate that they are entering a restricted area and IP will be notified. As new patients are admitted/discharged this could easily be updated. Not all Eastern Health employees have access to patient files but at least the people that do if this was put in place it would certainly help in this matter.

  • original townie
    September 15, 2012 - 07:50

    Money talks! When there are financial consequenses involved, snooping will be drastically reduced. Unfortunately our "injustice" system is such that a slap on the wrist is typical. Not a real deterrent to sneeking a look.