Family of Campobello man frustrated by efforts to have medical file transferred

A Campobello Island couple say they started asking for the documents in December and only just got the files transferred on Friday. (Patrick Morrell/CBC - image credit)
A Campobello Island couple say they started asking for the documents in December and only just got the files transferred on Friday. (Patrick Morrell/CBC - image credit)

To get to his family doctor in Saint John, Campobello Island resident Burrell Brown had to cross an international border twice, drive three hours, and do it all over again on the way home.

So when he found a nurse practitioner five minutes away from his house on the small southwestern N.B. island, he jumped at the chance to make the switch.

The first step was to get his doctor to transfer his medical records to his new provider — and that's where the trouble started, said Brown's wife, Deborah Mitchell.

They started asking for the documents in December and when they didn't have any luck with his family doctor, they started asking around for help. Family members called everyone they could think of, including the patient advocate, the Department of Health, the College of Physicians and Surgeons, and their MLA.

During that time, Brown, 69, was diagnosed with kidney cancer, had a kidney removed in January, made five trips to the emergency department, and had four or five blood transfusions.

Mitchell said it was a pretty important time to have a primary-care provider close by. The trip to the Saint John doctor involved taking the bridge from Campobello Island to Lubec, Maine, driving to Calais and crossing into Canada at St. Stephen. Depending on the weather, the trip could require a ferry ride to the Canadian mainland.

Submitted by Deborah Mitchell
Submitted by Deborah Mitchell

Yet neither she nor Brown's daughter had any luck getting the file transferred. Mitchell estimates they each made dozens of phone calls.

While the story has a happy ending — Brown's file was transferred last Friday, the day after his daughter contacted CBC News — it doesn't exactly have a moral.

The family had initially decided to talk publicly to warn others who may find themselves in the same position. Now  they're disappointed they don't know which of their many inquiries was actually successful after three months of trying.

Mitchell does have advice, however.

Contact "anyone they can get ahold of and be prepared to spend a lot of time on the phone and listening to a lot of broken promises," she said.

"You have to keep pushing. Because if you don't push, you get nothing."

A similar story

CBC had a similar experience trying to discover the protocol for transferring a medical file.

A spokesperson for Horizon Health said to contact the New Brunswick Medical Society. The medical society said to check with the College of Physicians and Surgeons of New Brunswick.

When contacted on Friday, the Department of Health asked whether CBC had contacted the Medical Society. The department did not provide a comment by publication time.

'It was just like a constant stalling thing ... And in the meantime, he's getting sicker.' - Deborah Mitchell

Late Monday afternoon, the College of Physicians and Surgeons responded by quoting information available on its website, saying patients are entitled to have their information forwarded "without impediment and in a timely fashion. In other words, the original physician should be prepared to forward information necessary for the patient's ongoing treatment in a timely fashion."

It goes on to say that physicians are entitled to "invoice the patient for this service as long as such is done on a fair and reasonable basis."

Julia Wright / CBC
Julia Wright / CBC

In the emailed response, the registrar, Dr. Laurie Potter, also said "sometimes patients will contact the College, and when possible, our Complaints Department team will reach out to the physician involved to see if we can help facilitate the transfer of files. Some patients also contact the Office of the Access to Information and Privacy under PHIPPA [Personal Health Information Protection and Access Act] directly."

For privacy reasons, Potter said she can't comment on any specific case.

Mitchell is still frustrated by the ordeal.

"It was just like a constant stalling thing," she said. "And in the meantime, he's getting sicker. And I can't get him in to see the nurse practitioner because we can't get the records."

Current provider bears responsibility 

Whether medical records are held by a physician or hospital, the primary health-care provider is responsible for ensuring "continuity of access to the patient's medical records," said Bernard Dickens, professor emeritus of health law and policy in the Faculty of Law and Joint Centre for Bioethics at the University of Toronto.

"It is professional misconduct to obstruct patients' access to their medical information," he said.

"Whoever or whichever agency holds the records should make them promptly available to newly appointed primary-care providers."