No more snooping into health records

A person’s health record is a very private thing, and yet it’s not always difficult to access someone else’s. Thanks to new amendments to The Health Information Protection Act (HIPA), people’s health privacy has been strengthened.

The amendments include offences for “snooping,” willful disclosure of personal information, and not properly securing health records. The changes also provide a system that will enable quick response to discovery of abandoned or unsecured records.

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“We had a very specific example in Regina where records were found abandoned in a blue bin back in 2012,” said Duane Mombourquette, executive director of Partnerships and Workforce Planning. “The information and privacy commissioner investigated and released a report recommending changes … (at the time) charges under HIPA could only proceed if there was enough evidence that an offence occurred.”

In other words, the person responsible couldn’t be held accountable because there wasn’t enough evidence to show that he or she deliberately committed the act. Under the new amendments, lack of proper responsibility can hold a person accountable for unsecured records.
The amendments are results of recommendations made by the Health Records Protection Working Group, which was formed after the Regina incident. They are made up of members from the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Saskatchewan Medical Association, College of Pharmacists, Saskatchewan Registered Nurses Association, a patient representative, and the Ministries of Justice and Health.

The group released a report in April 2014 that included the changes to help strengthen “trustees’ responsibilities under the Act, to address possible gaps in the legislation, and to put a system in place to deal with the discovery of unsecured records.”

“I’m confident these amendments will help strengthen the protection of personal health records and increase the accountability of trustees and employees in protecting those records,” said Health Minister Dustin Duncan in a government news release. “We take seriously the protection of privacy of personal health information of Saskatchewan residents.”

In a more general manner, people will no longer be able to request information on associates, even if they’re family. Should they be given that information, the person who gave it would be guilty of willful disclosure. If an individual looks into someone else’s records without just cause, they could be held guilty of snooping. It can only be for legitimate reasons such as business purposes, for someone’s job, or for a person working in a health facility, etc.

“If an individual who has such access finds out that his neighbour went into hospital and wants to check how that neighbour’s doing, they might check into electronic records when they have no business being there,” said Mombourquette.

Mombourquette said situations like that could result in a person being charged with an offence under HIPA.
Due to these new changes, all employees with access to health records will be informed of the changes and trained accordingly.

“Ultimately the trustee in the health system will need to make sure of what their obligations and liabilities are,” said Mombourquette. “It’s no longer an acceptable defense to say I didn’t realize this was an offence. The positive onus is on the person.”

These changes may not be the last to come. The government is still looking at the remaining recommendations made in the group’s report. Some of those include a single repository for abandoned records, providing private record storage options, and clarifying the definition of “trustee” for physician practice arrangements.

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