BEDFORD, N.S. – A business woman in Bedford has been receiving mental health records of strangers via fax for over ten years. Despite her efforts to correct the error and stop the faxes, they continue to arrive.
CBC News reported that Lisa Belanger (pictured) has received dozens of faxes from doctors’ offices around the province, all intended for a mental health referral office. Belanger says she’s been repeatedly assured that the problem would be fixed.
That hasn’t happened yet, so she alerted the CBC to draw more attention to the problem.
Belanger doesn’t remember the date of the first fax she received in error at her spa, but she does remember the information in it.
“It was a patient who was sadly suicidal and needed to see somebody at the crisis centre,” she said. “It was my first time ever seeing something like that or even being aware that something like that could be sent by those means.”
The fax, which contained the patient’s name, phone number and other identifying information, as well as notes on their mental health, was from a doctor and intended for a community mental health referral office in the Bedford-Sackville area. The fax numbers for the office and Belanger’s business are the same, save for one digit.
Belanger called the doctor’s office to tell them the fax had been inadvertently sent to her and thought no more about it – until others started to arrive. She estimates she receives between eight and 14 a year.
Nova Scotia’s Personal Health Information Act says it’s an offence to fail to protect personal health information in a secure manner. Anyone found guilty may be subject to a fine of up to $10,000 or imprisonment for six months, or both.
She continued to report each errant fax to the doctor’s office that sent it. She would then shred the document. She also forwarded them to an official at the former Capital District Health Authority, hoping someone there would take action to stop it.
“Memos were sent,” she said. “This is what I was told. Memos were sent to all the physicians’ offices throughout Nova Scotia about taking extra care punching [the numbers] in and having the proper pre-set button on the fax machine. I guess it didn’t happen because I received two in the last few months.”
She says she subsequently called Health Minister Leo Glavine’s office, the College of Physicians and Surgeons and the office of Nova Scotia’s privacy commissioner.
“Those need to be protected in every instance,” Glavine told reporters. “I find the whole incident very disturbing, very upsetting. And as a result, I want quick action on this.”
Department of Health and Wellness spokesman Tony Kiritsis told CBC News the minister’s office was made aware of the issue. It is concerned, he said, but there’s not much it can do as it did not send or receive the information.
The College of Physicians and Surgeons said it, too, was aware of the situation, and suggested contacting the office that administers the Personal Health Information Act.
Everton McLean, a spokesman with the Nova Scotia Health Authority, said doctors are independent and the authority can’t tell them what to do.
However, he said they do work with physicians to try and fix the problem. McLean said they’ve sent several memos to family practices, reminding doctors to ensure they’re using the right number for the mental health referral office.
He told CBC News the authority is looking at other options for sending sensitive material.
“There would have to be a system change, but we’re willing to definitely look into situations where there’s issues and find another technology,” he said.
Halifax privacy lawyer David Fraser said Belanger is dealing with the faxes in a responsible manner.
“The larger concern for me is the apparent casualness with which these documents are being faxed and also what seems to be the response when they’re told that they’re going to the wrong place,” Fraser said. “This suggests that the standard of care and diligence really isn’t being carried out in this particular case.”