Manitoba ombudsman launches probe into MRI patient information leak

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The Manitoba Ombudsman's Office is launching its own investigation into how a confidential document — suggesting that certain Winnipeg Jets players, politicians and other public figures possibly received preferential access to MRI scans — was leaked to the media.

Ombudsman Charlene Paquin announced the review on Wednesday, a day after the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority announced it is conducting an internal investigation.

"I am extremely concerned that the privacy of individuals has been violated by the disclosure of their personal health information in contravention of [the Personal Health Information Act]," Paquin said in a news release.

The provincial act states that organizations with access to personal health information are bound to protect the privacy of that information.

But several media outlets, including CBC News, were leaked a confidential list of individuals who had undergone MRI scans. The document was prepared by the Office of the Auditor General of Manitoba as part of its research into its recent audit into the province's management of MRI services.

The undated document names almost 60 professional athletes and six politicians — including several former ministers of health — along with four senior WRHA managers and eight radiologists among those receiving "potential preferential treatment" when it came to the speed with which their MRI scans were arranged.

"I cannot stress enough how important it is for all trustees of personal health information to remember that they are in possession of some of the most sensitive information about Manitobans," Paquin said in the release.

"This puts those trustees and their employees in a powerful position, especially when people seek care at a very vulnerable and emotional time in their lives, such as during the diagnosis or treatment of an illness," she said.

"We cannot presume that anyone accessing health care won't mind, or won't be negatively affected by, having their personal health information revealed without their consent or in another unauthorized way."

'It lives forever'

The fact that the information was released through the media has the potential to be very damaging to those named, Paquin told CBC News in an interview.

"If someone faxes information about you to the wrong doctor, that's a breach, but in the end it is less likely to have a real impact on an individual because it can be very much contained and it's within a certain system," she said.

"Once information goes out publicly like this, you lose control as to where it goes, who it goes to, how it's used, how it's reproduced. And when people's names are on the internet, you can start searching that too. So it lives forever for people and that can remind them of how painful an experience it might have been."

The ombudsman's office says it will be gathering information related to the breach, including the results of the WRHA review. As well, those who are named in the leaked document can file a privacy complaint with the ombudsman.

"The WRHA investigation may save us from asking the same questions that they're asking," Paquin said.

"Oftentimes when there's a breach, we want the public body to do their own review first and really prioritize that for themselves, and then we'll come in and get that information and ask further questions."

Criminal charges can be laid under the Personal Health Information Act, but Paquin said it's too early to say at this point if investigators will find who or what caused the privacy breach.

'A deliberate act of leaking information'

Auditor General Norm Ricard said Tuesday that it was not his office that leaked the information, which he said was initially shared only with two members of the WRHA.

Ricard said the leak has raised questions about whether his office should be sharing confidential information with the WRHA, the province's largest health authority.

"We would think long and hard before sharing a detailed list again," Ricard said.

"We are not happy with it and we are very concerned that confidential information was released, and it certainly wasn't by someone in my office … I suspect this was a deliberate act of leaking information."

Paquin said as part of its investigation, her office will examine whether the leak was intentional or accidental.

"I think it's fair to say there's been a breach. There's no question about that," she said.

"But it's really important before we pass that final judgment and make our findings that we really do have all the information around it. It's important that we tell the whole story in our review."

Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen, who called on the ombudsman's office to launch an investigation, has publicly apologized to those named in the leaked document.