B.C.’s privacy commissioner says her independent review of alleged privacy breaches in the Health Ministry’s pharmaceutical services division is a high priority and she hopes to complete it by the end of January.
“We hope to complete the investigation in the coming weeks, and we will be making our findings public,” said B.C. information and privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham.
“It’s high priority for our office. There have been serious allegations of breaches of privacy in the Ministry of Health, and we are looking at those allegations as well as conducting a comprehensive review of data handling practices around health research.”
The investigation’s focus is privacy — potential breaches and data handling against the requirements in privacy law, she said.
The commissioner has been given all relevant information from the Health Ministry’s investigation for its technical review, she said.
“It’s a complex investigation. It’s a reminder that the government collects and uses a large amount of sensitive personal information of British Columbians and the government is a steward of this information,” Denham said.
“Personal health information is never just data. It’s often sensitive and very personal information, and if that information is lost or improperly used or disclosed, then the impact on the individuals is very real and it can have a profound impact on peoples’ dignity and trust — and trust in the health system.”
The Health Ministry has also committed to revealing the findings of its investigation, but as yet has no date on when that will be.
Seven people have been fired since the Health Ministry began an investigation in May into allegations of conflict of interest and inappropriate data management, contracting out and conduct involving ministry employees and drug researchers in connection to the ministry’s pharmaceutical services division.
As a result of its investigation, the ministry also suspended sharing of data and about $3 million worth of contracts with the University of B.C. and the University of Victoria, as well as a funding agreement with the UBC-based Therapeutics Initiative, an independent research group that acts as a drug-safety watchdog.
The privacy commissioner’s investigation began in September.
The data in question has been referred to as anonymized, encrypted and de-identified.
The Health Ministry said in September personal health information is involved while researchers have said that if any information was shared, it was all stripped of any identifying information.
Denham said it is her job to get to the bottom of that.
© Copyright 2013