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Sask. privacy commissioner joins calls to axe fax machines in health sector communication

The Saskatchewan Health Authority logo can be seen in this CTV News file photo. The Saskatchewan Health Authority logo can be seen in this CTV News file photo.

Privacy commissioners across the country are calling on governments and healthcare sectors to stop using fax machines and unencrypted emails as forms of communication.

“Despite these rapid digital advancements in the health sector, breaches continue to be caused by the use of insecure communication technologies such as traditional fax machines and unencrypted emails, unauthorized access to health records by employees (often in the form of ‘snooping’), and cybersecurity attacks (including ransomware),” according to a joint resolution issued from federal, provincial and territorial privacy commissioners last month.

Instead, the group urges healthcare institutions to adopt modern and secure ways of transmitting personal health information, such as encrypted email services, secure patient portals, electronic referrals and electronic prescribing, the resolution stated.

“We’ve been recommending basically across Canada that people work on a better way. Is it encrypted emails or is it more robust than that?” said Ron Kruzeniski, Saskatchewan’s Information and Privacy Commissioner.

“The end result is a real need to protect your and my personal health information.”

The privacy commissioners said data breaches in the health sector could cause significant harm to impacted patients, including potential discrimination, stigmatization, and financial and psychological distress. As a result, these patients could lose trust in the system and avoid treatment or falsify personal health information.

“It’s sensitive information and we should give it as much protection as we can,” he said.

Kruzeniski said the former privacy commissioner did a report in 2010 that found a problem with faxes going astray. Since then, there have been numerous examples of faxes being sent to the wrong person or institution.

“12 years later, we’re still doing reports where faxes go astray,” he said.

“Sometimes it happens because of human error. It’s just the whole structure around fax machines.”

The Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) said the health system is working on a digital health strategy led by the Ministry of Health.

“Transitioning providers away from paper-based work flows, such as faxing, would be addressed as part of this work,” the SHA said in a statement.

In the meantime, the SHA said tools and technology have been put in place to ensure patient confidentiality through electronic communication, including a secure electronic health record.

Kruzeniski said it could take at least two years to transition away from fax machines due to the large volume of users and the high costs associated with the phasing out process. Top Stories

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