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Misdirected faxes still a problem in Saskatchewan

Gary DicksonREGINA – Privacy commissioner Gary Dickson (pictured) has issued a report showing that that breaches of confidentiality continue to occur in Saskatchewan, when doctor’s offices and health regions fax personal health information to the wrong number. In one instance, detailed hormone therapy information of a transgender person was faxed to a school.

Dickson said the fax machine is an antiquated way to share information. “There’s information that is faxed that is so sensitive, so obviously sensitive, you sort of say why would any trustee think it’s appropriate that this is the way to communicate this information, just because the risks are substantial with faxing,” Dickson said at a news conference.

About 1,000 patients in Saskatchewan were affected by fax errors during the last few years. There were 20 different investigation files alone in 2013 on these misdirected faxes, many of which can be attributed to things like misdialing the fax number, having the wrong fax number on file, or sending to the wrong person because of an auto-select option.

“(The information) becomes available to somebody who had no legitimate need to see that or read that information,” Dickson continued.

These are issues Dickson had already highlighted for the most part in a 2010 report on ‘Systemic Issues with Faxing Personal Information’. At that time, Dickson laid out recommendations on the actual procedure of faxing health information and what to do if that information is breached.

“In the course of this (2014) report, we’ve dealt with a number of physicians. It’s interesting the response you get sometimes; people never heard of the 2010 report. They’ve never seen any of the guidance documents on our website. They profess to have no idea how to do an internal investigation when there’s been a breach.”

Dickson said only six of the 31 trustees the investigation dealt with ever identified the cause of the misdirected fax. Further, only 70 percent of the patients whose information was breached were given notice.

In the 2010 report, Dickson had given hope to the idea that the transition to more electronic files would avoid breaches associated with faxing. However, human error may play too large a factor in it. “If we’re careless with a primitive fax machines, why would we think just because we’re using technology that the carelessness isn’t a factor anymore?”

While Dickson’s role is to offer advice, he said it’s up to elected officials and the government to play a role in remedying this continued problem.

“In other provinces where there are similar laws (to Saskatchewan’s Health Information Protection Act), it’s the health ministry that produces a comprehensive manual (with) checklists, guidance documents, FAQ’s, case studies and things like that. That’s missing in our province.”

Dickson doesn’t see a reason why Saskatchewan can’t base its own set of guidelines on those of other provinces.

On another note, Dickson announced earlier this month that he’s stepping down as information and privacy commissioner at the end of the January. In a news release, Gary Dickson said the resignation is solely for personal reasons.

Dickson was initially appointed in November 2003 as the province’s first full-time information and privacy commissioner. He was reappointed to another five-year term in April 2009.

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