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Ombudsman reviews privacy breach

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Apr 19, 2017

As many Manitobans are now aware, a confidential list of individuals who have undergone MRI procedures was recently disclosed to the media and some of this information was publicly released. 

On April 17, 2017, Manitoba Ombudsman was first advised of this privacy breach, and shortly thereafter, was made aware that the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority (WRHA) would be conducting an internal review. Manitoba Ombudsman has also initiated an investigation of this matter under the Personal Health Information Act (PHIA).

“I am extremely concerned that the privacy of individuals has been violated by the disclosure of their personal health information in contravention of PHIA,” said Ombudsman Charlene Paquin.

Personal health information under PHIA is any recorded information about an identifiable individual that relates to their health or health-care history, the provision of health care to them and the payment for health care provided to them. Health care includes any care, service or procedure that diagnoses, treats, maintains or promotes health, prevents disease or injury, or affects the structure or function of the body. The disclosure of diagnostic tests, such as MRIs, linked to specific individuals is most certainly personal health information under PHIA.

Personal health information is considered to be the most sensitive of all information about individuals. In fact, one of the purposes of PHIA is to ensure that personal health information is protected so that individuals are not afraid to seek health care or to share their sensitive information with health professionals. Manitobans seeking health care need assurance that their information is only shared for purposes authorized under PHIA. The law provides this protection to all individuals in Manitoba and it does not discriminate based on the type of health care someone receives, or on their employment or other perceived status.

“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,” said Paquin. “We cannot presume that anyone accessing health care won’t mind, or won’t be negatively affected by, having their personal health information revealed without their consent or in another unauthorized way.”

It is important to bear in mind that a privacy breach can potentially affect any member of the public and can be related to any health-care issue, which may be quite sensitive and personal to the individual. This particular breach currently involves individuals with public profiles who underwent a diagnostic test, however any unlawful disclosure of personal health information, about anyone, is a breach of privacy under PHIA.

Moving forward, our office will be obtaining information relevant to this breach, including information from the WRHA’s review. Additionally, individuals affected by this disclosure have a right under PHIA to make a privacy complaint to Manitoba Ombudsman.