04/10/2014 04:18 EDT | Updated 06/10/2014 05:59 EDT

Saskatchewan eyes tougher health record privacy rules after breaches

REGINA - The Saskatchewan government plans to move ahead on four recommendations to help protect patient health information from snooping or when files are abandoned.

The steps include creating a specific offence for when a worker unnecessarily accesses someone's health records and making providers show that they are trying to prevent records from being abandoned.

"Prosecutors have not been able to pursue charges because the way the legislation currently stands, we have to prove that there was an intent and that's very difficult to prove," Health Minister Dustin Duncan said Thursday.

"This will require that the trustees ... demonstrate the steps that they took to prevent the documents from being released."

The health minister said legislation against snooping needs to be clearer.

"It was really not clearly defined whether or not the act would even trigger charges for somebody who had not perhaps taken records, but accessed records," said Duncan. "People should have the expectation that their records will be used in an appropriate manner."

The changes come at the urging of former privacy commissioner Gary Dickson.

He had called for tougher rules in 2010, after a curious pharmacist used his home computer to read a former patient's drug record.

An investigation found that the pharmacist, a former president of the Saskatchewan College of Pharmacists, checked the files of the patient and two family members nine times out of personal interest.

Dickson also urged the government to make changes after thousands of medical records were found in the garbage behind a Regina mall in 2011. The commissioner and two assistants then went Dumpster diving to retrieve the files. Among those boxes were 2,682 complete patient files and 180,000 pieces of patients' personal health information.

It was later determined that the files were from Dr. Teik Im Ooi's clinic.

Dickson said that although Ooi was a senior physician, she had never read the Health Information Protection Act and no one in her office seemed to be responsible for looking after medical information once it went into storage. He recommended justice officials consider prosecution.

But two reviews — one by the public prosecutions division and a second by a private law firm — concluded there wasn't enough evidence to prosecute.

"Our focus isn't just about charging people. This is obviously about protecting records," said Duncan. "But when there is a clear violation of the legislation, I think that this will provide us the ability to take the appropriate steps."

Another of the recommendations the province is moving ahead with would let the health minister appoint someone to take control of abandoned records.

Duncan said that could happen when a doctor dies and his estate doesn't know what to do with patient files, or when a doctor leaves a community and the files are left sitting in an office.

Duncan said the changes could be introduced this fall.