Patient privacy breach: thousands of medical letters found dumped

Friday, 21st April, 2017

Health Minister Brad Hazzard speaks to media about patient correspondence discovered in a bin. Photo: Nick Moir

MORE than 700 public patients have had their privacy breached and treatment potentially delayed after more than 1600 medical letters were found dumped in Sydney bin.

NSW Health is investigating the incident involving a sub-contractor for a company tasked with transcribing medical letters sent from specialists to general practitioners, Global Transcription Services (GTS).

On Tuesday, April 11, a man found the piles of follow-up letters patient details stuffed into a garbage bin at an apartment block in Ashfield. It is understood there were over 1,600 documents in total. 

The man called over his neighbour, a female health worker, who recognised the documents were out-patient letters and contacted Ashfield police. 

The sub-contractor who dumped the letters was woman going through health issues, Mr Hazzard said on Thursday, adding it was inappropriate to comment further.

The incident has prompted Health Minister Brad Hazzard to launch an external review into the transcription services across all NSW public health facilities.

The letters related to 768 public hospital patients from Royal North Shore, Gosford Hospital outpatients and Cancer Centre and Dubbo Hospital Cancer Centre.

There were also 700 letters relating to patients from six private providers: Chris O'Brien Lifehouse, providing services to Dubbo Cancer Clinic, Northern Cancer Institute (Frenches Forest and St Leonards), Sharp Neurology, Southside Cancer Care Centre, Strathfield Retina Clinic and the Woolcock Institute. It is not known how many private patients were affected.

The bulk of the letters were treatment progress reports from specialist consultations in December.

The sub-contractor was supposed to take the letters home to post but instead stuffed them into the bin. 

Staff at Royal North Shore collected the letters from police on Wednesday, April 12 and contacted the health minister's office. Senior staff at NSW Health launched an initial review on Good Friday.

An external review of the processes of transcription services in state public health facilities will be conducted by KPMG, Mr Hazzard said. NSW Health has alerted the Acting NSW Privacy Commissioner. 

"It's completely unacceptable ...We have to get right ot the bottom of what has gone wrong here, " Mr Hazzard said.

"This is a human system and things can go wrong occasionally ... but I want to be satisfied that we are doing everything possible to reduce the risk of human error," he said. 

Mr Hazzard said he was concerned to learn GTS had no way of auditing their letter delivery processes. 

Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant said clinicians at Lifehouse, RNS and Gosford hospitals had reviewed the patients involved and found no clinical issues as a result of the delay in correspondence.

Doctors at Dubbo Cancer Centre had contacted eight patients directly or through their GPs to either bring them in for a consultation or arrange follow up referrals, she said. 

There appeared to be no negative clinical outcomes for the patients,  she said.

It is the second publicly disclosed patient privacy breach in NSW in two months. In March ABC News reported on documents detailing a number of breaches including medical records found in a public car park.

Questioned over whether there could be similar breaches, Dr Chant said: we have nothing to indicate from out investigations that this was a repeat episode. It appears to be a one-off episode," she said. 

Mr Hazzard said the incident bolstered the case of an overhaul of the current paper-heavy health correspondence system and comprehensive switch to digital health record keeping.

Opposition health spokesperson Walt Secord said the breach was "sloppy and dangerous". 

"It is absolutely frightening that private medical records were left in rubbish bins in an Ashfield apartment block. This just should not happen," Mr Secord said. 

"It is extremely distressing for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy treatment to find out their personal medical details have been handled this way," he said. 

GTS has been contacted for comment. 

The Sydney Morning Herald 

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