Add another tale of health data faxing woe to the NWT’s list


Accounts of NWT patients’ health data being accidentally faxed to inappropriate destinations continue to emerge.

The problem has been documented for more than a decade, beginning with a 2010 episode in which staff in Norman Wells inadvertently faxed medical records to the CBC’s Yellowknife newsroom.

In 2018, the NWT’s then-privacy commissioner urged the territory’s health authority to stop using fax machines in favour of newer, more secure technology. But incidents have continued to pile up.

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The latest report, published by current privacy commissioner Andrew Fox last month, refers to a 2019 incident in which a patient’s medical information was mistakenly faxed to 60 different places.

Accidental recipients, Fox wrote, included “several private companies, a number of Nunavut health centres, several Alberta health facilities – both private and provincially run – as well as other GNWT departments and organizations and several federal agencies.”

A staff member at the NWT’s health authority had been trying to fax the patient’s name, date of birth, healthcare number and some tissue specimen data to a single medical laboratory.

Fox said the health authority had told him the employee was not familiar with a new fax machine at Stanton Territorial Hospital that had a “very sensitive touch screen user interface.”

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Three of the recipients got in touch after the error was made. The health authority subsequently faxed all 60 recipients, asking them to destroy the medical records that had been accidentally sent. None responded to that request.

Among the 60 recipients were “at least 30 other divisions” of the NWT’s health authority, Fox wrote in his summary of an investigation into the breach, adding that the territory’s privacy policy should have led those divisions to let the sender know they had made a mistake.

“Only one of those notified the sender of the error. Clearly there is a need to review this part of the policy system-wide,” he wrote.

Fox acknowledged that “the healthcare industry continues to rely on faxing” beyond the NWT, meaning the health authority is not the sole culprit in the reluctance to advance to safer technology.

“Indeed, the Alberta government recently implemented a ‘new’ system for use in that province which continues to rely on fax technology for most of its communications,” Fox wrote.

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“This obliges NTHSSA to communicate with Alberta healthcare institutions via fax. Nevertheless, this office will continue to encourage the use of more secure means of communication whenever possible.”

His recommendations included that the health authority use fax machines only when no safer option exists, and that “employees are trained on how to use the fax machines they are required to use.”