Medical records and other sensitive data could become “weapons of mass destruction” if they are not properly protected, Minister of Health Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Bostic has warned.
His caution came as he led off debate on the Data Protection Bill as it was introduced in the House of Assembly.
Describing the new bill as comprehensive, Bostic warned that technological advances have “radicalized the way in which we have conventionally been able to collect, store, share and disseminate information”.
“And because of these technological developments there are some vulnerabilities that are inherent in the process and so there are some areas that we need to address in order to be able to deal with new and emerging threats, and this Bill seeks to do just that.”
Adding that the new legislation would affect several ministries, sectors and tens of thousands of Barbadians and non-nationals, Bostic suggested that “medical records “constitute special categories of personal data”.
The health minister said: “In this technological evolution that we are experiencing I equate the question of records, of data with that for example, of nuclear energy.
“Something that is intended for good but if it falls in the hands of those who would want to do people harm then it becomes a weapon of mass destruction.
“Although data is not considered in those terms the misuse of data, the misuse of personal information by persons who should not have access to that information would have irreversible consequences.”
The Health Minister said he believed that when it comes to dealing with sensitive information including those relating to medical records, the level of accountability should be higher.
He warned: “If that information is compromised and if we do not maintain the confidence of the public that we are trying to serve then it brings our healthcare system to a grinding halt.”
It was for this reason, Lt Col Bostic urged, that Government should put things in place to “deal with issues where persons give away information where they ought not to give away or where persons have not been acting in a professional and confidential manner”.
He suggested that as part of the move to better protect data, there should be policies put in place for ongoing training.
“Training is absolutely necessary,” he said.
“I don’t believe it is enough for example, for people to sign the Official Secrets Act.
“That is not going to embed in them the need for secrecy and confidentiality.
“We need to have some training seminars annually or on an ongoing basis especially when persons are coming in the medical profession and other professions, there should be training to sensitise persons to the need and requirement for confidentiality.
“I think that is absolutely necessary.”
The Health Minister said he also saw the need for legislation to give Government the “authority to be able to deal and account for what goes on as well within the private sector in terms of medical records”.
He gave the assurance that the health information system in Barbados was currently well-protected and there was a high level of confidentiality and professionalism among the custodians of the data.
But he said that in the “near future”, Government would be making some changes in the primary healthcare system, including allowing consultants at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital to read x-rays from a polyclinic so they could give advice to the physicians treating the patient at that polyclinic.
“So we would certainly be depending on the use of data and the fact that persons know we are using their data for the good of the patients themselves,” Lt Col Bostic said.
In his contribution to the debate, Minister of Agriculture Indar Weir urged Barbadians not to fear the digitising of its departments.
Confessing that he was having a difficult time in “getting certain things done” in his ministry because of a lack of data, Weir said he believed having more data would help the decision-making process in both the private and public sectors.
Referring to the digitisation of government records, Weir said: “Fear not.
“Your information is more secured now than it would have been where somebody, a watchman or any other person can sneak into a room and photocopy it or tear out a leaf and move with it.
“So the fear that people have is only fear driven only by fear.”