Patient information cards sold at auction

May 0, 2007

By James Wood, The StarPhoenix

The Saskatoon Health Region apologized Tuesday after more than 2,000 patient information cards that were supposed to be treated as "very confidential" were accidentally sold at an auction of health region surplus material rather than shredded.

The plastic cards are used to make imprints on documents for patient records. The cards contain names, dates of birth, addresses, religious affiliations, health card numbers and the names of the patient's doctor.

They were used between January and May of this year for day surgery patients and outpatients at City Hospital.

The cards were discovered in a box purchased as part of a collection of material in a weekend sale at PBR Auction. The buyer then turned them over to the Saskatchewan Party, which returned them to the health region.

Health region chief executive officer Maura Davies said the cards don't contain medical information about patients, but they are supposed to be for internal hospital use only.

"We are very sorry this happened. It is a breach of privacy, and we take it very seriously."

"We are investigating it and we will take whatever steps we need to do to ensure it never happens again," she said in a telephone interview.

After they are used, the cards are supposed to be destroyed by a waste-disposal company hired by the health region.

"What appears . . . although we're still confirming the facts, is that on the same day these were being picked up we had another truck in the same area of our dock picking up a pile of discarded furniture and things that were going to the auction house and this box got in the wrong pile," said Davies, who said the incident happened last Wednesday.

Davies said the health region is not aware of any other similar instances and, in this case, believes all of the cards were recovered.

Trish Livingstone, the chief privacy and access officer with Saskatchewan Health, said there is a significant concern when such situations occur.

A health card number could conceivably be used as part of an attempt at identity theft, although it is likely not too helpful by itself, she said.

"There is a risk that it can be used for inappropriate or illegal uses . . . usually it's in combination with other ID that it's used for securing (a) new identity. If you wanted to secure a new identity, you'd need more information than that typically," said Livingstone.

Davies said a letter will be sent to all affected patients alerting them about the case and directing them to contacts who can provide more information. Patients can apply to the government for a new health card number at no cost.

The region will do an analysis of every step in the process to see what needs to be corrected, said Davies, although discipline of employees is unlikely.

The province's information and privacy commissioner, who was not available for comment Tuesday, has been alerted to the case. While the health region is responsible for the investigation, the provincial Health Department is ready to assist, said Livingstone.

In 2003, more than 1,300 confidential doctors' billing forms from the now-defunct Plains Health Centre in the Regina Qu'Appelle Health region ended up being used as props on the set of the television program.

The Saskatchewan Party said a review is necessary because of issues such as identity theft.

"Hopefully it's an isolated thing and hopefully no other information is out there. But whenever something like this does happen, I think it's worthwhile to sit back and decide, 'Is there a systemic problem, are there other issues there?' " said Saskatoon Southeast MLA Don Morgan.

Meanwhile, Bob Roy, the owner of PBR Auctions, said he had no idea health information cards were in the material he received from the health region.

He's never had that happen before, but it's not out of the ordinary for items to end up with him that aren't supposed to come to the auctioneer.

"I did get one time all the personnel records from the Lanigan potash mine in a desk. We returned them," said Roy.

"We don't go through it all. A lot of it we sell by pallet."

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