The Northwest Territories’ health authority defended its affinity for fax machines after being urged to give up a technology dating to the 1960s.

The territory’s information and privacy commissioner, Elaine Keenan Bengts, recently tore a strip off the health authority for persisting with faxes, despite a series of related privacy breaches.

Keenan Bengts wants to see the authority use solutions like encrypted emails instead, which she says are simple and low-cost.

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“I simply cannot understand the apparent reluctance of the health sector to adopt the better technology,” Keenan Bengts wrote in her latest annual report, tabled in the legislative assembly late last month.

Infamously, healthcare workers inadvertently faxed medical records to CBC North in both 2010 and 2012. Keenan Bengts has since routinely documented more cases of misdirected faxes.

Officials say the NWT’s Electronic Medical Record system has reduced the need for fax technology and privacy training is mandatory for all staff, but Keenan Bengts is adamant more must be done.

“No less than nine of the 22 breach notifications received from health information custodians involved information that had been sent by fax and had ended up in the wrong hands,” she wrote.

“I encourage the Department of Health and Social Services to take the lead in this transition and create appropriate steps to create policies and procedures to encourage the health sector to update its communications strategies by reducing the use of faxes.”

Faxes ‘ensure accurate and timely care’

David Maguire, a spokesperson for the health authority, said staff do follow policies and procedures to “efficiently manage privacy breaches when they happen, [address] risks to client privacy, and [include] incident reviews to identify and address issues and ensure privacy protections are in place.”

Maguire referred to a document entitled Guidelines for Sending Patient/Client Information by Facsimile, which covers verification requirements and pre-programmed numbers; logging faxing activity; directions for urgent faxing; verifying receipt of faxes; and how to use a fax cover sheet.

Maguire did not name any documents which encourage staff to reduce the use of faxes, a step Keenan Bengts wants to see implemented, but he did confirm privacy training “includes instructions on alternate means of secure transmission of personal health information including, secure email via message encryption, GNWT’s Secure File Transfer service, and electronic messaging systems that are included in the Electronic Medical Record system.”

Additional privacy training may be required for some staff depending on their role, he added.

Giving an example of when faxes may be used, Maguire explained: “Client information may be faxed to local NWT health centres, to ensure accurate and timely continuity of care and treatment for NWT clients that have received specialized health services in another jurisdiction, such as Alberta, and have returned to the NWT.”

He said faxes are also used in event of “an absence of other means of timely communication.”

Despite dedicating a section of her report to “the use of fax technology in the health sector,” Keenan Bengts did acknowledge an improvement in reporting breaches and identifying and addressing issues.