The law suit arises from this - and it began the auditor general’s office relaying an anonymous complaint about contracting irregularities and inappropriate research practices in the ministry’s pharmaceutical services division.
It would appear the Ministry of Health undertook immediate action upon determining the misuse of private medical data may have taken place. The matter was referred to both he RCMP and the BC Privacy Commissioner with whom the Minstry of Health has been working closely.
This affair should reflect credit on the government.
The B.C. government announced Thursday it has suspended all drug-related research and fired four of its employees as part of an investigation into the alleged misuse of confidential medical information.
“I can’t really overstate how deeply troubled I am by this,” Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid said Thursday.
“What we believe has happened is that individuals have gone outside of the rules around taking data and using data with respect to research in the area of drugs.”
On Thursday, The Vancouver Sun reported that seven government employees had been suspended without pay, and that agreements with two contractors had been dropped.
MacDiarmid said four of those employees were fired Thursday, and that three others remain suspended.
She said her ministry has suspended $4 million in drug-related research contracts, including work being done at both the University of B.C. and the University of Victoria.
“This is research that we contract with certain research entities, and that has all been stopped for the moment until we’re sure going forward that no health information is being shared inappropriately,” she said.
The government announced it has also suspended all data sharing with drug and evidence development researchers.
Other measures include:
• approval by a deputy minister for all spending by the pharmaceutical services division (see sidebar);
• tightening of policies on the awarding of contracts to universities;
• hiring an independent consultant to review and enhance data security measures.
MacDiarmid took over as health minister in a cabinet shuffle Wednesday and said she was shocked to hear of the allegations.
“My reaction was disbelief,” she said, adding the investigation was the first thing she was briefed on upon her arrival.
“I continue to be deeply troubled and disturbed by this.”
MacDiarmid said it appears the misuse of data was limited to unauthorized research, but noted the investigation is still seeking to determine exactly what information was accessed.
“It is my understanding that it was personal data, that it is regarding medications, but that there is personal data included in that,” she said.
“As far as we can understand it was used for research where it wasn’t initially given for that purpose. We don’t know if it was being used for anything beyond that,” she added, saying the ministry has forwarded information to the Information and Privacy Commissioner.
MacDiarmid said the investigation is also looking into allegations of undeclared conflicts of interest.
“It would appear that some of the people that were involved had relationships with others that would put them into a conflict that wasn’t declared,” she said, adding a family relationship was among the issues.
The ministry began its recent investigation in May after the auditor general’s office relayed an anonymous complaint about contracting irregularities and inappropriate research practices in the ministry’s pharmaceutical services division.
The ministry has since involved the RCMP, and last month provided the force with the preliminary results of its internal investigation.
MacDiarmid said the ministry hopes to pass more information to police later this month.
The RCMP would not provide any details Thursday. “Until we have reviewed the information we are not in a position to provide comment,” said RCMP spokesman Sgt. Duncan Pound.
In a press release Thursday, government said its internal investigation “examined contracting and research grant practices between ministry employees and researchers at the University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria.”
On Thursday, both schools said the Ministry of Health informed them on Wednesday afternoon of the allegations and the action being taken by government.
UBC spokeswoman Lucie McNeill said that because the university learned of the allegations so recently, it is too soon for authorities to determine whether any disciplinary action is necessary on the part of the university.
Representatives of both universities were unable to say how many researchers were involved or their area of health research. Both said they will cooperate fully with the ministry investigation.
New Democratic Party critic Doug Routley said the allegations raise serious questions, especially as so little is known about what took place.
“This is a fairly significant breach if it’s already led to the firing of four employees [and] there’s a potential RCMP investigation,” he said, calling the lack of public information about the case “disconcerting.”
And in early January:
The personal-health data of millions of British Columbians has been accessed without proper authorization, and in the most serious cases, the provincial government says it will notify 38,486 individuals of the breaches by letter.
Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid made the announcement as part of an ongoing investigation into research-grant practices between ministry employees and researchers at the universities of B.C. and Victoria.
MacDiarmid said that during three separate instances in October 2010 and June 2012, the health information was saved on USB sticks and shared with researchers or contractors without the proper permission or protocols.
MacDiarmid said the data did not include names, addresses or financial information, but it wasn't supposed to be shared with other health researchers.
Also included was data from Statistics Canada's Canadian Community Health Survey, including information on the mental, physical and sexual health of individuals, as well as their lifestyles and the use of health services.
“We don't have any evidence at all that any of this information was used for any purpose other than health research. There is minimal if any risk that this information that would be used in a way that would be harmful to these individuals.”
MacDiarmid said her ministry decided to write the letters following discussions with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner.
For Immediate Release Jan. 14, 2013
Statement from B.C. Privacy Commissioner regarding
data breaches at the Ministry of Health
VICTORIA – B.C.’s Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham issued the following statement regarding privacy breaches at the Ministry of Health:
“On Sept. 11, 2012, in response to notice of alleged data breaches by the Ministry of Health, I launched an independent investigation into disclosures of personal data by the Pharmaceutical Services Division of the ministry. My authority to conduct such an investigation is mandated by the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
“My office’s investigation includes the instances of unauthorized disclosures of health data confirmed today by the minister, but also includes a broader review of the ministry’s data-handling practices in relation to research.
“Our investigation will be complete in the coming weeks, and we will be issuing a public report with findings and recommendations.”
The Commissioner will not be making any further comment on this matter until the Office’s public report is released.
Manager, Communications and Public Education
Office of the B.C. Information and Privacy Commissioner