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 and used a patient’s health information (her phone number) for the unauthorized purpose of contacting her to pursue a personal encounter with her. The hearing tribunal found that the pharmacist not only used the patient’s health information without an authorized purpose, but he committed a boundary violation and misused his authority as a health information custodian and pharmacist. Although the pharmacist did not ultimately have a personal encounter with the patient, the 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 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 registrant and there was only a single occurrence of the offending conduct. The tribunal ordered:
- the completion of an ethics course 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
- a payment of $10,000 towards the costs of the investigation and hearing,
- a fine of $1,000, and
- a condition that the pharmacist must disclose the tribunal’s written decision to any pharmacy employer for a period of 2 years.
Rationale for the tribunal’s decision, is reflected in its following statements:
From the tribunal’s decision:
The heart of the allegations before the Hearing Tribunal related to [the pharmacist’s] use of [the patient’s] health information to contact her at home in order to pursue a personal encounter. Such conduct is inappropriate and is contrary to the fundamental principle that pharmacists must only use a patient’s personal and health information for the specific purpose that it was collected. Here, [the pharmacist] used information that was collected in order to provide pharmacy services to [the patient] for personal reasons.
Pharmacists are entrusted with a significant amount of personal and health information about patients, including personal contact information. It is a fundamental expectation that pharmacists will safeguard that information, and use it only for the purposes for which it was collected. [The pharmacist’s] decision to use [the patient’s] personal information in furtherance of his personal objectives, and for purposes unrelated to her care constituted a serious violation of [the patient’s] privacy and a breach of his fundamental obligations to the public and the profession.
Pharmacists and Pharmacists – Review your Ethical Duties to our Profession and Yourself
- 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.
- Visit the website of Alberta’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner at: https://www.oipc.ab.ca/. In addition to health information resources, this website also provides summaries of recent OIPC investigations and decisions involving health information.
- Discuss the proper use of health information with your peers.
- Review, and update as needed, your pharmacy’s health information policies and procedures.
Review and discuss with peers your fundamental ethical obligations. Principles 1, 3, and 4 of the Code of Ethics will provide you with valuable guidance relevant to this case.