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Refresh health data laws to match digital age: B.C. privacy watchdog

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VANCOUVER - In an era of wireless heart monitors and citizens uploading personal health information online, British Columbia's privacy commissioner is urging lawmakers to keep pace with modern technology.

Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham outlined her prescription for healing a "weak patchwork" of laws in a report calling for an all-inclusive framework to protect health data.

"Doctors treat the whole patient and not a specific condition. Similarly, government needs to take a holistic and comprehensive approach to how personal health information and patient data is used, shared and disclosed," Denham said in an interview Wednesday. "We need to keep up with the challenge of the digital age."

About three years ago, Denham began noticing that the provincial health-care system's use of technology was outstripping the laws in place to protect the information. Members of the public were also contacting her office asking for help accessing their own health records — something that was straightforward in some cases and extremely complex in others.

Denham's report lists 21 recommendations she hopes will help legislators start a discussion and initiate a public consultation process that could help deal with the issues involved.

B.C.'s initial law governing privacy around health data came into effect about 20 years ago, when all records were kept on paper, Denham said. Since then, new laws have only been added incrementally as the system has evolved into a complex web including private and public providers and sometimes thousands of people who can potentially access a single patient's information.

The public wants and deserves more control, best accomplished with new laws, Denham said.

"In some cases we can look at our records online, in some cases we can't," she said. "We can look at our lab tests, we can't necessarily look at our emergency care records. We're now using wearable devices."

She pointed to Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and as far away as Australia as good role models to follow, noting it appears only B.C. lags behind when it comes to having a broad legal framework dealing with health data.

Although the province has been hit by some major health data breaches in the past, Denham did not attribute them to the laws she says are weak. However, she suggested that a new law with much higher standards would help prevent such problems in the future.

Other concrete measures Denham would like taken include significant fines for big privacy breaches and a mandatory rule that health-care providers must notify patients if their data has been compromised.

"We need to think about the world of new technology and make sure we take advantage of innovation but at the same time ensure that people have the right to control their own personal health information."

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Follow @tamsynburgmann on Twitter

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