Privacy commissioner's report on B.C. Health Ministry leaves many questions unanswered

    1 of 2 2 of 2

      A new report on government data breaches adds to confusion concerning pharmaceutical research in B.C., according to a UVic drug-policy researcher.

      Alan Cassels told the Straight that the B.C. privacy commissioner's recent investigation confirmed three instances in which health data was handled inappropriately. But its report does not explain actions that the Ministry of Health has taken in response to revelations that first came to light in May 2012.

      “I think it’s completely blown out of proportion,” Cassels said. “We’ve got a half a dozen drug-safety studies that aren’t happening because of this investigation, and this report doesn’t clarify anything.”

      The report by Elizabeth Denham details how a ministry employee provided two contractors with sets of data that included personal health numbers. A third instance of improper disclosure involved the transfer of personal health information from one ministry employee to another without proper authorization. All three cases were found to have contravened the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

      However, the report also states that the ministry “might have been authorized to disclose the personal information to the contracted researcher and employer” but failed to do so. Cassels suggested that this lessens the severity of the transgressions.

      “Maybe they didn’t follow the rules or maybe the person who gave it to another person wasn’t authorized to do so,” he said. “But this so-called privacy breach has to do with the way the data was provided to researchers, not with how they used it.”

      It’s worth noting that data breaches are not unusual. In response to a freedom-of-information request filed by North Vancouver-based journalist Bob Mackin, the B.C. government produced a list of 350 such incidents recorded between January 2, 2010, and December 31, 2012. Yet the government has reacted severely to the allegations of inappropriate conduct within the health ministry.

      The ministry has fired seven employees since an internal investigation began in May 2012. (Seven legal actions have subsequently been filed against the ministry and former health minister Margaret MacDiarmid, according to a summary of these events reported in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.) A September 6, 2012, media release states additional contracts were suspended or terminated.

      Furthermore, in the summer of 2012, pharmaceutical researchers’ access to ministry information was suspended pending completion of a separate internal investigation. (According to Ryan Jabs, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Health, that moratorium has since been lifted, and access to some databases is again being granted by the ministry data stewardship committee on a case-by-case basis.)

      According to Cassels, the privacy commissioner's report is silent about that heavy-handed response.

      “It’s still not clear to me whether these privacy breaches are even related to the people who were fired,” he emphasized. “So instead of clarifying what is happening at the ministry, this actually muddies things.”

      The Ministry of Health did not make a representative available to the Straight for an interview. It was the fifth consecutive time in three months it refused to do so.

      Questions about the Denham's report were put to Health Minister Terry Lake during a June 26 media scrum in Victoria.

      “Why do taxpayers still not have the faintest idea what’s going on here?” asked Les Leyne of the Victoria Times Colonist.

      Lake said he hoped that the public would have a “full picture as to what happened” by the end of the summer.

      “Meanwhile,” he continued, “we have a report that suggests that we need to do things better, and we accept that report.”

      You can follow Travis Lupick on Twitter at



      Lorna Clark

      Jul 8, 2013 at 10:57pm

      There are taxpayers whom are the expert patient and they know exactly what is going on. The reaserchers were fired to cover-up another BC liberal scandel. Ask the liberals why they changed a terms of reference, their four month delay Nickolas Simmons questioned Hanson over and then ask them how many hard copies films were distroyed throughout BC and how many are dead. How much fraudulent data exsists in patient medical records.
      The evidence speaks for itself up in the Comox Valley and were not finished yet,,, all the time in the world....The truth will come out...garentee it.