Playing for the Pharma team: Christy Clark switches jerseys on drug safety

Independent drug oversight finds itself unwelcome in British Columbia.

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Seven scientists and research managers have been fired. According to the government, they had to go because they mismanaged healthcare data in as yet unspecified ways. According to a report released June 26 by BC Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham, there were three data breaches within the ministry.

These happened, she concluded, "because the Ministry failed to translate privacy and security policies into meaningful business practices. The primary deficiency at the Ministry was a lack of effective governance, management and controls over access to personal health information."

This meant that "Ministry employees were able to download large amounts of personal health data onto unencrypted flash drives and share it with unauthorized persons, undetected." 

Denham's report indicates that at most three ministry employees mismanaged data, and that in at least one case, the mismanaged data was deliberately erased by its recipient.

Readers of her report will wonder whether holding employees responsible for their mistakes (let alone firing them) is fair:

"There is no Ministry privacy policy that establishes the basic principles of privacy for Ministry employees, "Denham notes. "There is also no Ministry-wide process for ensuring employees are aware of privacy policies and receive annual privacy training."

All seven of the fired scientists and research managers have launched legal actions claiming the government acted capriciously and inflicted severe personal and professional harm on them long before it completed its investigation. They all strenuously deny that they mismanaged data.

UBC’s Malcom Maclure is the best known in the group: After two decades of award-winning scientific work for the ministry in his capacity as its co-director of pharmaceutical research, Maclure, 60, who trained at Oxford and Harvard and holds UBC's prestigious chair in patient safety, received a phone call informing him the ministry had suspended him from work. The news seemed "difficult to believe," he recalls. Maclure describes the charges against him as "vague."

Maclure’s not alone in his puzzlement. Bob Nakagawa, who directed the Ministry of Health's Pharmaceutical Services Division from 2006 until last April, when he left the ministry to become registrar of the College of Pharmacists of British Columbia, says he never heard a word about the troubles that led the ministry to fire Maclure and the rest of its drug auditors.

The news that Maclure was singled out "absolutely shocked" him, Nakagawa recalls.

"I've known Malcolm for many years," he says after noting that the two men helped structure B.C.'s drug pricing regime -- a topic on which Maclure holds commanding international status. "He is the researcher in the world," Nakagawa says before adding that he's puzzled as to why Maclure was fired: "From the outside looking in, we're not hearing very much," he laments. "People seem to think its nefarious pharma pressure. I don't know."

The government itself has done miserably little to illuminate the situation. In September, former Minister of Health Margaret MacDiarmid (she lost her seat in the May 14 provincial election,) announced that the RCMP had been asked to investigate alleged inappropriate conduct, contracting and data-management practices. MacDiarmid later clarified that the drug data at issue in the ministry’s investigation were de-identified to protect the identity of patients, and have been used only for research.

The government’s case doesn’t seem vague solely to Maclure and Nakagawa. Sergeant Duncan Pound of RCMP “E” Division Criminal Operations Federal Policing in Surrey, BC, says the ministry hadn’t fully prepared the case when MacDiarmid announced the investigation. Nine months later, Pound still will not confirm whether or not the force is actually pursuing an investigation. Interestingly, Graham Whitmarsh, the deputy minister of health who presided over the scientific putsch, was recently dismissed, which may indicate the government regrets his strategies.

Painful and spooky as it is, the government’s putsch against its drug auditors hasn’t stopped with the attack on Maclure and the other members of the Ministry of Health’s drug research team.

Last fall, Victoria stopped payments to the Therapeutics Initiative, a UBC-based group of data hounds who have published independent drug safety assessments for 19 years that led to changes in the way 95 per cent of BC physicians and 92 per cent of BC pharmacists say they prescribe or recommend drugs.

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