Are mental health records confidential?

Region: Ontario Answer # 707

The federal and provincial governments have legislation pertaining to access to any personal information, including medical and mental health records. In most cases, the government must refuse anyone access to records held in its departments and agencies without the consent of the individual or unless required by law. Individuals can allow access to their health records by giving their consent in writing.

The provincial statute governing personal health information in Ontario is the Personal Health Information Protection Act (PHIPA). This Act provides a comprehensive set of rules that apply to all sectors of health care, including mental health, in order to protect the privacy of personal health information. The Act also governs the collection, use and disclosure of personal health information within the health care system. The Act is overseen by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario (IPC). Under the Act, individuals have the right to request access to their own personal health information held by health care providers, called health information custodians, such as doctors, nurses and dentists, and others involved in the delivery of health care services, including pharmacies, medical laboratories or local medical officers of health.

The Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) is the federal legislation that covers the collection, use and disclosure of personal information, including health information, in the course of commercial activities conducted by organizations such as private pharmacies, laboratories and health care providers in private practices. PIPEDA applies to personal information not covered by similar provincial legislation, and to federally regulated organizations, such as banks, broadcasters, airlines, and transportation companies.

Both PIPEDA and Ontario’s PHIPA list a comprehensive set of rules that apply to all sectors of health care, including mental health, in order to protect the privacy of personal health information.

These rules include:

  • Any personal information collected will be used for the care and treatment of the patient.
  • A patient’s consent will be implied for the collection, use and disclosure of their personal information for care and treatment purposes if, once the patient knows their personal information protection rights, they continue with care and treatment.
  • A patient’s personal information will not be disclosed to anyone who is not directly involved in their care and treatment unless they give permission. Those involved in a patient’s direct care may include nurses, other doctors, pharmacists, laboratory technicians, radiologists, dentists, psychologists, social workers, physiotherapists, nutritionists and other health care providers.
  • Some of a patient’s personal information may also be disclosed without their permission to governments (Ministries of Health and others), where this is required or authorized by law.
  • Any personal information that is stored electronically will be protected by appropriate security measures.

For more information on mental health records and privacy laws, contact the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, or visit ipc.on.ca.

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