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Privacy chief urges random audits of pharmacies

REGINA – Saskatchewan’s privacy commissioner is recommending random audits of pharmacies to ensure that pharmacists are observing the province’s privacy laws when accessing the Pharmaceutical Information Program (PIP), an electronic system that contains the medication histories of patients.

The recommendation came after the commissioner, Gary Dickson (pictured), issued a report finding that a Melville, Sask., pharmacist had improperly accessed the records of a former friend and patient, as well as the medication histories of two other people.

In his report, issued earlier this month, commissioner Dickson said that L & M Pharmacy in Melville breached the province’s Health Information Protection Act (HIPA), primarily by failing to adopt policies and procedures to protect the personal health information in its control.

His investigation stemmed from a complaint that a pharmacist had improperly viewed information by using the PIP. According to the commissioner’s investigation, the pharmacist entered the PIP database using his home or work computer on four dates in January 2009 to view the drug profiles of an individual and two of that individual’s family members.

Previously, the individual had been a patient of the pharmacy and friend of that pharmacist, but the two had a falling out before the privacy breach, due to the dissolution of a business arrangement.

“After carefully considering the evidence and submissions from (the pharmacist), I have no hesitation in finding that his viewing of PIP information about his former patients was done not for a professional reason but rather for his own personal interest,” Dickson wrote, adding that even if the records were accessed out of genuine concern for the individual, it does not excuse or justify a HIPA breach.

It was the first formal investigation the privacy commissioner has conducted into any part of Saskatchewan’s electronic health record system, which is being developed in stages.

In addition to random checks of pharmacists’ use of PIP, Dickson said the province should also develop a policy to revoke or suspend access for registered users of the system who view personal health information for reasons contrary to HIPA.

The College of Pharmacists could also improve its privacy training, Dickson said.

Darryl Leshko, a managing partner of L & M Pharmacy, described the breach as an isolated incident that has been taken “very seriously.”

A consultant has already been brought in to help the pharmacy craft a written policy and procedure manual for issues of privacy and confidentiality, Leshko said.

As a result of the report, the Saskatchewan College of Pharmacists is now discussing what improvements it can make, said registrar Ray Joubert. The college didn’t discipline the pharmacist involved, accepting that it was a one-off error of judgement and that steps have been taken to prevent such breaches from happening again.

Posted April 22, 2010