We regularly read stories about our personal information being handled carelessly, stolen, accidentally released or simply tossed out with the trash by companies and governments. But news that several B.C. government employees were improperly funnelling confidential information to medical researchers is still pretty shocking.
Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid says four employees have been fired and three others suspended without pay for providing private information to contractors doing drug research, the Vancouver Sun reported.
"I can't really overstate how deeply troubled I am by this," 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."
MacDiarmid, who was only appointed health minister Wednesday, said her ministry has also suspended $4 million in drug-related research contracts, including work done at the University of British Columbia and 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.
MacDiarmid said she was shocked when she was given results of an investigation underway before she took on the health portfolio.
"My reaction was disbelief," she said. "I continue to be deeply troubled and disturbed by this."
Investigators are still trying to learn what information was accessed but MacDiarmid said it appears misuse of the data on medications was limited to unauthorized research.
The minister said the investigation is also looking into potential conflicts of interest involving family connections. But there's no evidence so far that anyone involved gained financially from the improper release of the data, she said.
This isn't the first case of improper conduct at the B.C. Health Ministry. Last year, former senior bureaucrat Ron Danderfer pleaded guilty and received two years' probation for breach of trust. He admitted to accepting the use of a vacation condo in the Okanagan Valley, B.C., and a job for his wife from a contractor whose work he was supervising, the Sun reported.
The latest investigation was launched in May after the B.C. auditor general's office received an anonymous complaint about contracting irregularities and inappropriate research practices in the ministry's pharmaceutical services division, the Sun said. The RCMP has also been called in, MacDiarmid confirmed.
Health information in British Columbia is protected under various laws that limit who can get access to data and for what purpose.
A few years ago, the federal government began developing a Pan-Canadian Health Information Privacy and Confidentiality Framework, though not all provinces have signed on.