“One case has been going on for quite a while and the poor woman has postnatal depression and insomnia and a host of deeply personal circumstances that she clearly does not want me to know,” said the man, who spoke to The Age on the condition of anonymity.
“She is of course under the impression that only her medically appointed personnel are privy to her personal situation. She believes her documented behavioral, physical, psychological and mental circumstances are private. She has no idea that I know her address and biography and contact information.”
The perils of faxing a patient’s medical details have come under intense scrutiny in recent years.
Last year, Coroner Rosemary Carlin criticised the medical profession’s reliance on “antiquated and unreliable” faxes and called for national communication standards after a Victorian cancer patient Mettaloka Halwala’s test results were sent to the wrong number and he died alone in a hotel room.
Four days before Mr Halwala’s death, a scan conducted at the Austin Hospital showed signs of potentially fatal lung toxicity linked to his cancer treatment. But the results were faxed to the wrong number.
“It is difficult to understand why such an antiquated and unreliable means of communication persists at all in the medical profession,” Coroner Rosemary Carlin said at the time.
The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners president Harry Nespolon said faxing was a risky and outdated method of patient referral.
“A number of coronial inquiries have pointed out the inherent risks in this method of communication,” Dr Nespolon said. “Unfortunately, fax is still a commonly used communication tool across the whole health sector.”
He said the federal government’s Digital Health Agency is working on developing a two-way secure electronic communication system to protect sensitive data, a move vehemently backed by the RACGP.
“It is also important to note that maintaining privacy and security of sensitive information is everyone’s responsibility,” Dr Nespolon said. “In situations such as this, the unintended recipient should have contacted the practice immediately and destroyed the records they had received.”
It is not known how many patients were affected by the privacy breach Harding Street Medical Centre in Coburg. At least two of the referrals sent to the wrong fax machine were referrals for women to an antenatal and postnatal psychology service in Melbourne’s north-west.
The man, who has owned the fax machine for 22 years, estimates he has mistakenly received the medical histories of about 10 patients, most of which he disposed of after receiving them.
“My wife grabs them from the fax machine and says ‘here you go dear, another one of your patients,'” he said. “Often they contain quite detailed and graphic information which is complete breach of the person’s privacy.”
When asked by The Age why he hadn’t contacted the clinic to notify them of the breach, the man said he had hoped it would stop of its own accord and did not want to unnecessarily alarm patients.
But after being faxed two more pages of confidential patient information in recent weeks, he feared it could be part of a broader issue of patient safety and serve as a warning to other medical clinics to ensure they better managed patient privacy.
“I have been sitting on this misdirected fax story for a number of years and have no interest in profiting from this or alarming the poor victims,” he said. “Such a breach of confidentiality is really very serious and I think it people need to know about it so it doesn’t happen again.”
According to the latest Notifiable Data Breaches scheme statistics report, the health sector remains responsible for the most privacy breaches nationally. In the April-June quarter, health recorded 19 per cent of breaches followed by finance which recorded 17 per cent.
The clinic has been contacted for comment.
Melissa Cunningham is The Age’s health reporter.