The Hay River Health and Social Services Authority has been having a rough year.

An audit of Hay River Medical Clinic referrals turned up 41 irregularities where referrals to specialists and other medical services were either delayed or not done at all. This follows the cancellation of dental surgeries at the clinic earlier this year after concerns arose about the clinic’s sterilization process for medical equipment.

“It is significant,” said Erin Griffiths, CEO of the Hay River Health and Social Services Authority. “Two (instances) would be large.”

Even one mistake when it comes to community health is too many but it is a good sign that the people responsible are taking these irregularities seriously and have been forthright in identifying the problems. A review of the irregularities will determine what harm, if any, came to patients.

Health care is a particularly sensitive topic in the North where the smaller the community the less access there is to it. Even in larger centres such as Inuvik and Yellowknife, residents can have trouble finding a doctor they can establish trust with as health authorities struggle to find physicians willing to stay long term.

Almost scarier in the Hay River health authority’s admission that some non-essential patient information was improperly shared by health providers.

In 2015, the territorial government launched a new patient privacy protection law, dubbed the Health Information Act, in an attempt to better protect private medical records following a series of embarrassing breaches of confidential information of NWT patients.

The incompetence on this file was particularly illustrated by the repeated faxing of patient records – including pap and blood test results — from Yellowknife’s Stanton Territorial Hospital to the CBC in 2010.

Alas, the legislation didn’t go far enough, according to Information and Privacy Commissioner Elaine Keenan Bengts last year.

While the laws requires health authorities to notify patients of privacy breaches, training to prevent breaches wasn’t mandatory and did not include clerical staff who are often the “gatekeepers” to sensitive information.

It’s relieving to know the Hay River Health Authority is investigating its data breach but the latest incident raises the question: Is this a problem only in Hay River or does it remain an issue territory-wide, despite the recent legislative attempts to fix the problem?

It’s particularly crucial in the NWT that sensitive medical information not be allowed to spread around like salacious confetti.

When private information takes a ride on the gossip train, it’s not just embarrassing — there can be real consequences in small communities where people know each other.

That kind of information can affect jobs, family and social lives for years to come. Physicians share information for referrals but does a dietitian, for instance, need to know that a patient had gonorrhea in 1987?

In a digital age, information can get out more easily than ever; material is more easily shared. All it takes is one doctor dropping a thumb drive full of patient information in a parking lot or one employee hitting “reply all” for a privacy breach to occur.

The latest breach in Hay River and the privacy commissioner’s year-old criticisms suggest that this remains a real problem in the territory and more work needs to be done to prevent them.

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