Editorial: Patients' privacy can't be breached

By Michele McPherson


Our deepest, darkest secrets are divulged to medical professionals and no one expects them to be shared.

Last week, the Bay of Plenty Times revealed that a staff member at the Bay of Plenty District Health Board had breached the privacy of 48 of its patients and staff.

In a letter to each of these people, the board did not explain how their privacy had been breached, why, by whom, or which aspects of their medical histories had been shared over the staffroom water cooler.

They apologised for any distress, embarrassment, upset or harm caused and told the patients that the incident was being "referred to the staff member's manager for managing under the health board's internal policies and procedures".

How unsettling for the patients who received that unexpected letter in their mailbox.

I can only imagine what it feels like to know that some of your most personal ailments, thoughts or concerns - shared in confidence with a medical professional - have been passed on to strangers as gossip.

What is more concerning is that the health board did not make the issue public and the recipients of the letters did not know if they were alone in their misfortune or not.

Only after one concerned patient contacted this newspaper, did the full scale of the privacy breach become evident.

Since we ran the story on the front page of Thursday's paper, four more affected patients have come forward.

Health boards are government organisations, funded by taxpayers. When the letter was sent out, each of the patients should have been told how many people had been affected by the breach.

The health board should have made its "sincere apologies" public, reassuring the victims, their friends, family and the wider Western Bay community that all steps were being taken to avoid future breaches of privacy.

The investigation into the privacy breach took four months while the staff member sat at the same desk, using the same computer she had used to access patient's files without reason or consent.

Whenever the Bay of Plenty Times contacts the health board for comment, privacy is uppermost on its list of reasons not to say a lot.

Western Bay residents need to know their most personal of information is safe in the hands of the medical professionals they trust.

Even the slightest suggestion their privacy has been breached should be acted on quickly, thoroughly and with urgency.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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