One day after news that Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's medical records were inappropriately accessed while he underwent cancer treatment, Olivia Chow has confirmed her late husband and former NDP leader Jack Layton had the same experience while in the care of another major Toronto hospital.
Ms. Chow, who is running to replace Mr. Ford as mayor, would not discuss the details of the incident or the number of employees involved, referring all questions to the Princess Margaret Hospital.
"Jack Layton's medical records were breached, yes," she said Friday when contacted by The Globe. "I am totally satisfied with what Princess Margaret Hospital did in dealing with the situation," she said. "It is an old matter. It is a matter that is in the past."
Gillian Howard, the vice-president for public affairs and communications at University Health Network (UHN), which includes the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, said she could not disclose how the hospital dealt with the employee or employees who breached Mr. Layton's records.
"Any patient or, obviously, their spouse is entitled to talk to you about what happened," she said. "The hospital itself cannot speak to you about the situation, nor [about] the individual employee who was involved."
However, Ms. Howard said the network takes seriously its responsibility to guard patients' confidential medical records. UHN regularly conducts random audits investigating how patients' files have been accessed, especially if someone with a public profile is being treated at one of the network's four hospitals.
"Everything in the discipline [process] can move up to and include termination," she said.
Mount Sinai Hospital confirmed Thursday that a pair of employees who are not part of Mr. Ford's treatment team accessed his health records. The hospital would not say what punishment, if any, the employees received, what jobs they hold or held or when Mr. Ford's records were accessed.
In both instances the patients were notified of the breach – something that is required under the Personal Health Information Protection Act, the provincial legislation that safeguards patients' medical records.
Mr. Layton announced in July, 2011, that he was stepping down temporarily to seek treatment for cancer just two months after leading the federal NDP to Official Opposition status in a historic election. Ms. Chow has never disclosed the details of the cancer or the timing of its progression, saying it might discourage others who face a similar prognosis and need to be confident they can overcome the disease.
Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner Brian Beamish said in a statement that hospitals need to be vigilant in protecting information. "Additional safeguards should be considered for records of prominent individuals to the extent that they aren't already in place. Our experience is that hospitals have protocols in place for high profile patients including enhanced audit functions."
Ann Cavoukian, Ontario's former information and privacy commissioner who is now executive director of the Privacy and Big Data Institute at Ryerson University, said she would like to have measures to stop such breaches before they happen, not find them after the fact.
"It is completely unacceptable," she said, noting medical information is the most intimate of personal information.
Asked whether she is satisfied by the response of hospitals in such cases, Ms. Cavoukian said she personally believes the punishment meted out to those who access medical records improperly should be made public as a deterrent to others and to show that hospitals take such incidents seriously.
"We are all potentially patients in hospitals," she said, noting that it is at such times that people feel especially vulnerable.