The Ontario government is moving to stop health-care workers and others from snooping into patients' private records by making it easier to prosecute offenders and doubling fines.
Health Minister Eric Hoskins, who is also a physician, told reporters on Wednesday that in the fall he will reintroduce, with some enhanced measures, a bill on protecting patient privacy that died on the order paper when the election was called last year.
When the bill is passed, he said, it will "strengthen Ontario's position as a national leader in the protection of patient privacy."
The province has had a law for 10 years aimed at protecting the privacy of patients, but no one has ever been convicted. More than 400 cases were reported to the Information and Privacy Commissioner's Office last year, but reporting is not mandatory so there could be many more.
Recently, a number of breaches have occurred, including a case in which employees at Rouge Valley Centenary Hospital were gaining access to the medical records of new mothers to market registered education savings plans, according to the commissioner's 2014 report.
As well, a North Bay nurse was caught rifling through thousands of patients' files out of simple curiosity.
There were several instances of hospital workers looking at former Toronto mayor Rob Ford's files after his cancer diagnosis, but it was not the catalyst in beefing up the proposed legislation, Information and Privacy Commissioner Brian Beamish said.
Mr. Beamish worked with Dr. Hoskins on the new bill, and all of his recommendations were accepted.
It will be mandatory to report breaches to the commissioner's office; it will be easier to prosecute offenders as the requirement that offences be prosecuted within six months of an alleged breach is being lifted, and fines are being doubled to $100,000 for individuals and $500,000 for organizations.
"With the evolution of shared electronic health records, it's important to have a governance framework in place, particularly for us around privacy and security," Mr. Beamish told The Globe and Mail. "You will have different professionals putting information in and taking information out and it's critical if the public is going to accept shared electronic health records that the rules be very clear."
About 80 per cent of family doctors in Ontario have electronic health records, according to Dr. Hoskins.
Mr. Beamish said a successful prosecution of a breach will send a signal that this is a serious offence. Alberta and Newfoundland and Labrador have prosecuted these types of cases, he noted.
It is important to get this right, Mr. Beamish said, because individuals whose records have been inappropriately viewed have a profound feeling of "violation."
More important, however, he believes that there could be big consequences for the health-care system: "… The worry would be that if people don't trust in the privacy and security of the health records, they may not be as … honest and may not provide all the information that's required for their proper health care, and that's very worrisome."
NDP health critic France Gelinas said in a statement that it has been 742 days since the Liberals introduced the original bill and they still have "no timeline for when these long-overdue changes will take effect. …
"The minister could have introduced these changes last week, before MPPs left Queen's Park, but the Liberals chose to wait until the start of the summer recess, forcing patients and their families to wait even longer."