Investigation launched into privacy breach of politicians, athletes' personal health information
Published Wednesday, April 19, 2017 3:38PM CST
Last Updated Wednesday, April 19, 2017 6:00PM CST
The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority has launched an internal investigation into a privacy breach involving the personal health information of several Manitobans.
A leaked document as part of the Auditor General’s report into the management of MRI services in the province contained the names of Manitobans who potentially received preferential MRI scans.
The report noted patients with influence and those covered by private insurance, such as professional athletes, may have been given higher priority to MRI scans for non-medical reasons.
Theresa Oswald, former health minister and current executive director of the Women’s Health Clinic, said she found out her name was in the leaked document after receiving a call from a reporter.
“It was extremely jarring,” Oswald said. “One’s personal health information is really the most intimate and private information that anyone can have.”
“Today, it may be records of a diagnostic test for me, but as I lead the Women’s Health Clinic I can’t help but wonder, tomorrow might it be somebody’s decision to release information about our clients’ sexual and reproductive health?”
“It’s a very slippery slope and I think that people need to stand on guard in terms of protecting their private health information.”
Oswald said she sought the advice of physician who ordered a test, and that she followed the physicians’ instructions with no expectation of preferential treatment.
She said at no time has she ever asked for preferential treatment for any kind of health care.
“I stand strongly by the statement, but I certainly would hope in the future anybody choosing to leak information for salacious reasons or otherwise would take a sober second thought, as would the media itself before printing that information without people’s consent.”
Auditor General Norm Ricard said he was mortified when he found out the document had been leaked.
“It was forwarded to the WRHA in confidence to help them further explore why some of the occurrences of each of those MRIs…to explore under which circumstances they were provided, and to make sure their systems were working the way they thought they were.”
Ricard said the list flagged 92 MRI scans where preferential treatment may have been given. The Auditor General reiterated Wednesday there’s no evidence any of the people who received the scans asked for preferential treatment.
Ricard said the leak didn’t come from the Office of the Auditor General.
“We know who had access to that information, and it’s limited to two people who I trust implicitly,” Ricard said.
In a statement, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority said the source of the breach is not yet known.
"The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority takes extremely seriously its responsibility to protect the privacy of personal health information,” said a WRHA spokesperson in an email to CTV News.
“An internal investigation has been launched into a breach of that privacy this week involving a number of Manitobans as part of an Auditor General's report. The findings of the investigation will be reported directly, not to WRHA administration, but to its Board of Directors."
Pitblado Law privacy lawyer Andrew Buck considers the leak a significant breach of the Personal Health Information Act.
“When we talk about privacy breaches, one thing that we always think about is how sensitive is the information,” Buck said. “Along with things like social insurance numbers, it doesn’t get much more sensitive than your health information.”
“You go to your health care provider, you get services…you don’t expect that you’re going to then be called on to justify why you got these services, why you got them perhaps in preference to anybody else,” Buck said. “Separate and apart from whether or not that happened or not, it’s not fair to expect people to have to explain themselves on that basis. That’s more of a systemic, organizational issue, and not something that the average person who’s receiving health care would have to explain.”
“Just because you’re a high profile individual, is it fair you’d have to explain that, too? I think that’s more a question to be asked at the organizational level, and I think that’s exactly what the Auditor General’s report seems to have done.”
On Tuesday, Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen said he was disappointed to see personal health information being reported in the media.
“I believe that everyone, regardless of the positions that they hold or have held, deserve to have their (private) health information protected,” Goertzen said. “I personally apologized to those whose names were brought forward in the media. I apologize on behalf of the Department of Health, and will reach out and apologize to them personally.”
Goertzen said he will ask the Auditor General for proof that any individuals received treatment that they otherwise wouldn’t have been expected to get based on their medical condition.
“I have not ever seen that proof, and I didn’t see any proof reported in the media.”
Goertzen said he’s also asked for a review of the policy around how professional athletes receive treatment in the health care system and how the Manitoba’s policy compares to other provinces.
Oswald said Goertzen has already personally apologized to her.
“I don’t think that anyone, anyone…should be phoned in afternoon or an evening and be asked about their personal health information,” Goertzen said. “I don’t care if they were a former health minister, or someone who’s worked in the system, or if they were someone who’s never been involved in the health care system. That is not how health information should be treated.”
The Manitoba Ombudsman said she has also launched an internal review into the leak.
“I am extremely concerned that the privacy of individuals has been violated by the disclosure of their personal health information in contravention of PHIA,” Charlene Paquin said in a news release Wednesday.
“I cannot stress enough how important it is for all trustees of personal health information to remember that they are in possession of some of the most sensitive information about Manitobans. This puts those trustees and their employees in a powerful position, especially when people seek care at a very vulnerable and emotional time in their lives, such as during the diagnosis or treatment of an illness.”