10/16/2015 02:14 EDT | Updated 10/16/2015 02:59 EDT

Alberta Medical Record Breaches Hit 'Epidemic' Levels, Says Privacy Watchdog

"Improper access of health information is becoming an epidemic within electronic medical record systems."

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Male doctor's hands typing on desktop computer keyboard with stethoscope

Breaches of Alberta's electronic medical health records are starting to become an "epidemic," says a spokesperson for Alberta's Privacy Commission.

Forty-eight employees at Calgary's South Health Campus have inappropriately accessed a patient's information, Alberta Health Services (AHS) disclosed in a statement Wednesday

Vickie Kaminski, CEO and President of AHS, wrote that all individuals involved will be facing disciplinary action, and that AHS will take the privacy breach very seriously. Kaminski noted the case is currently under investigation by Alberta's privacy commissioner.

"Our office is investigating this situation but considering we handle these situations on a case-by-case basis, and the magnitude of this particular breach, we have to perform our due diligence under the legislation before speaking specifically on these incidents — or whether these incidents will lead to offence investigations," Scott Sibbald, spokesman for Alberta's Privacy Commission, told CBC News.

"More broadly, improper access of health information is becoming an epidemic within electronic medical record systems."

The breach is the latest of many to plague the organization. So far this year, there has been one conviction for improper access of health care information, two additional charges of improper access and reports of other breaches that may become full-fledged investigations, the Calgary Herald reports.

Last year, an employee at the Alberta Children's Hospital was fired after using the system to access personal health information for nearly 250 people.

Morbid curiousity

The 48 employees now under investigation are seemingly linked. All of the employees had allegedly searched for details about a mother that was taken into medical custody after the suspicious death of her special needs daughter — a case that made headlines, reported the Calgary Sun.

All activity in the system is recorded, and the high number of searches for the mother's name caused it to be flagged to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, which kickstarted the AHS investigation, the Sun revealed.

Nurses union upset over investigation

United Nurses of Alberta (UNA) is considering AHS and Vickie Kaminski's statement to be a privacy breach against the employees involved.

UNA released a statement Wednesday disputing the results of the investigation, calling for Kaminski's resignation after claiming employees behaved improperly:

UNA also notes that the statement was widely distributed in a large workplace where the identities of the employees facing discipline are well known, and that copies have now been leaked to media. UNA believes this a breach of confidence illegal under Alberta privacy legislation and will be seeking appropriate redress for its members who have been affected by this publication of confidential personnel matters, which any CEO should understand is inappropriate. The honourable thing for Ms. Kaminski to do in these circumstances is to resign.

Know your rights

With breaches on the rise, it's important to know who has the right to access a patient's healthcare information and what rights a patient has if they feel their private information has been breached.

The Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner has outlined six options that all Albertans have the right to exercise in regards to their private health care information:

  1. You have the right to know why your information is being collected.
  2. You have the right to ask for a copy of your health care record.
  3. You have the right to limit which health care professionals can access your electronic information.
  4. You have the right to know who has accessed your record, and know why they have accessed it.
  5. You have the right to ask for errors in your record to be fixed.
  6. You have the right to ask for a review or inquiry if you are concerned about the privacy of your record.

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