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Are hospitals improperly disposing of personal health information?

March 20, 2018

Bottom Line: A substantial amount of personal information, most of it personal health information, was found in the recycling at five hospitals in Toronto, Canada, despite policies in place for protection of personal information.

Why The Research Is Interesting: Patients have the right to expect safekeeping of personal information. With patient information increasingly maintained in the electronic health record, paper records are frequently discarded, creating risk for paper-based privacy breaches.

What and When: An audit of the amount and sensitivity of personally identifiable information (PII) and personal health information (PHI) found in recycling bins of five teaching hospitals in Toronto from November 2014 to May 2016. All hospitals had established PHI policies; for paper disposal, each hospital had recycling bins, garbage, and, for confidential information, secure shredding receptacles.

Authors: Nancy Baxter, M.D., Ph.D., University of Toronto, and coauthors

Results: Personally identifiable information and personal health information were found in recycling at all hospitals, including 2,687 documents with personally identifiable information. Most items were recovered at physician offices. Clinical notes, summaries and medical reports were the most frequent type of personally identifiable information inappropriately discarded.

Study Limitation: The study was restricted to recycling and did not include an examination of garbage disposal, which is another potential source of privacy breaches. The authors acknowledge that they are not aware of a case of inappropriate use or harm related to such privacy breaches.

Study Conclusions: Privacy breaches are commonly caused by human error so organizational solutions to improve the security of personal health information on paper are needed. Minimizing the printing of documents containing personal health information could help.
-end-
For more details and to read the full study, please visit the For The Media website.

(doi:10.1001/jama.2017.21533)

Editor's Note: Please see the article for additional information, including other authors, author contributions and affiliations, financial disclosures, funding and support, etc.

JAMA

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