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Only access health information for authorized purposes

February 3, 2021

Lessons Learned: any unauthorized access of an individual’s health information is forbidden.

A recent Hearing Tribunal issued its written decision on the merit and orders about the conduct of a pharmacist who was found to have accessed multiple patients’ health information without any authorized purpose. The unauthorized accesses, including accessing her own electronic health records, occurred on multiple occasions over a 20-month period. In doing so the Hearing Tribunal found that the pharmacist misused her authority as a health information custodian and pharmacist. Although there was no information to suggest the pharmacist disclosed the health information of the patients, the Hearing Tribunal found that the pharmacist’s conduct was unprofessional and warranted sanctions.

The requirement for registrants to properly collect, use, disclose, and safeguard their patients’ health information, including their registration information, is foundational to the relationship between pharmacy professionals and patients. When health information is accessed and used for an unauthorized purpose, this relationship is eroded, as is the integrity of the profession.

In this matter, the Tribunal imposed significant penalties, even though there had been no previous history of unprofessional conduct on the part of the pharmacist, there was no disclosure of patient health information, the pharmacist admitted to her unprofessional conduct, and the pharmacist’s employment was terminated. The Tribunal ordered:

  • a reprimand;
  • the completion of an ethics course, at her own cost, within one year;
  • a three-month suspension, with the first month to be served and the remaining two months to be held in abeyance, subject to the successful completion of the ethics course and there being no further privacy concerns;
  • an order that the pharmacist must disclose the Hearing Tribunal’s written decision to any pharmacy employer for a period of two years;
  • a condition that prohibits her from being a licensee for two years; and
  • a payment of $10,000 towards the costs of the investigation and hearing.

Rationale for the Tribunal’s decision, is reflected in its following statements:

[The pharmacist’s] conduct displayed a clear lack of judgment. She was not a new employee or pharmacist and should have understood that accessing health records without an authorized purpose was not appropriate. This was not an isolated incident of a single lapse in judgment. [The pharmacist’s] conduct was repeated over a number of years and for a number of patients, …

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Pharmacists are entrusted with access to the personal and health information of patients. It is a fundamental expectation that pharmacists will only access the information when authorized to do so and only use it for a proper purpose. The public has the right to expect that health records will only be accessed when there is an authorized purpose for doing so.

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[The pharmacist’s] decision to review the personal information of individuals for purposes unrelated to medical care constitutes a serious violation of privacy. It was a breach of her obligations owed to the public, as well as to the profession, and is conduct that harms the integrity of the pharmacy profession.

Pharmacists and pharmacy technicians – review your ethical duties to your patients, your profession, and yourself

  1. Review, understand, and comply with all aspects of the collection, use, disclosure, and safeguarding responsibilities of health information. Excellent information about these responsibilities can be found on the ACP website in the Resource section. The publication Helping pharmacists and pharmacy technicians understand the Health Information Act may be particularly informative.
  2. Visit the Alberta Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner website. In addition to health information resources, this website also provides summaries of recent OIPC investigations and decisions involving health information.
  3. Discuss the proper use of health information with your peers.
  4. Review, and update as needed, your pharmacy’s health information policies and procedures.
  5. Review and discuss with peers your fundamental ethical obligations. Principles 1, 4, and 10 of the Code of Ethics will provide you with valuable guidance in this respect.
  6. Review, and discuss with your colleagues, ACP’s tenets of professionalism.

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