Fraser Health is being accused of deleting some doctors' voice-dictated reports for patients because of a huge backlog in medical transcription services.
The Hospital Employees' Union (HEU) says it sometimes takes too long to get the audio files from physicians transcribed and Fraser Health has a policy of purging certain files that have been in the system more than 60 days.
The files that can be deleted are those that are "on hold" because the doctor failed to include certain information that's needed before the transcription can be finished.
"It leaves people with incomplete medical charts," said HEU spokesperson Margi Blamey.
She said the purging practice puts patient safety at risk.
A patient might have a pre-anesthetic consultation with the anesthesiologist, who would later dictate a report and send it for transcription. But Blamey said some of the reports never get transcribed in time.
"They may actually arrive at their surgery without the information being in their file," Blamey said.
But health authority officials reject the union's claims.
"There's no risk of patients losing their information through a purging process," said Yoel Robens-Paradise, executive director for Lower Mainland health information management.
He said the "on hold" dictations that are deleted make up a "fraction of a per cent" of the overall transcription volume and said it's "frightening" and "unfortunate" that the union would suggest all backlogged recordings are at risk.
No files that can be processed are ever deleted until they're transcribed, he said.
The accusation is the latest volley in the HEU's fight against plans by Lower Mainland health authorities to contract out the 130 remaining unionized transcriptionists based in Vancouver, New Westminster and Abbotsford.
The move is expected to save $3 million per year on an annual transcription budget of $14 million.
About half the medical transcription in the region is already outsourced to Ontario-based Accentus, which uses home-based subcontractors.
Hospitals at UBC, Vancouver and Richmond had more than 16,500 backlogged reports awaiting transcription last week, according to the union.
Robens-Paradise said transcription work has been steadily growing and he conceded a significant backlog does exists.
"It's not meeting my service level expectations," he said, adding it can take a few weeks for some requests to be processed.
Doctors can priorize transcriptions to make sure urgent ones are done fast.
Robens-Paradise predicts the backlog will be cleared this spring as work begins to shift to newly selected provider MModal.
The change will bring state-of-the-art voice recognition systems that should more than double the productivity of existing staff, he said.
The union has asked B.C.'s Information and Privacy Commissioner to investigate whether patient privacy can be assured if medical transcription is fully outsourced to a national network of home-based workers.
The health authorities deny there is any security or privacy risk to further privatization.