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Province moves to resurrect suspended drug research after ministry firings

Sep 08 2012
Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid wants drug research back on track. 

Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid wants drug research back on track.

Photograph by: Darren Stone, Times Colonist , Times Colonist

The B.C. government is struggling to resurrect its drug research program in the wake of a privacy breach scandal that has suspended important drug research related to Pharmacare.

The Health Ministry said Friday it is hiring a wellknown firm to help fix the troubled drug-testing program, as well as the way it awards contracts to universities and protects patient privacy.

The government axed two contracts worth $4 million with the University of Victoria and the University of British Columbia, involving prescription drug research and development. The province also temporarily suspended drug research and related data sharing, after an internal government probe turned up privacy breaches and conflicts of interest in those areas.

"We can't go forward until we are sure the data is secure," said Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid.

The government revealed Thursday that it determined health ministry employees, primarily in its pharmaceuticals services division, had skirted privacy rules regarding the use of personal medical data. It also found conflicts of interest involving health ministry employees and university researchers.

As a result, four Health Ministry employees were fired and three suspended without pay.

"There already is excellent policy and excellent legislation but - if a few people make a determination they are going to violate that, and find ways around that, it's really hard to build something in [to the policy] for that," MacDiarmid said.

"What's good about it is it seems like it was a very few people," she said. "And, as far as we're aware, the information was only used for health research - but it wasn't used for the purpose that was initially planned."

The motivation and benefit for seven people involved in the alleged privacy breach remained the million-dollar question Friday.

"You are simply not allowed to use that information for something else no matter how brilliant a research idea it might be," MacDiarmid said. "You can't do it."

Although MacDiarmid said she is not aware "at this time" of any individual or group benefiting monetarily from the privacy breaches or conflicts, she now says it's a possibility.

"It's possible that something like this could be uncovered in this investigation," MacDiarmid said Friday. "There could be a potential that someone could gain for themselves professionally or in some other way by repurposing information."

The ethical review that's done around research proposals and the use of health data is very clear, MacDiarmid said.

The government is now set to seek advice on how to set up its research contracts in a way that will ensure its standards around contracting and privacy are upheld.

As well, it's changing the way it grants money and manages its relationship with universities. This whole process is estimated to take months.

The Health Ministry investigation is the result of an anonymous tip to B.C.'s auditor general last March.

A formal investigation was launched in April.

The B.C. government is now asking the RCMP to investigate.

Sgt. Duncan Pound, with the commercial crimes section, said Friday that information has been received from the government and will be reviewed to determine whether an investigation is warranted.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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