What happens to personal information when an organisation closes down? One thing is certain. Don’t follow the example of a doctor who, when closing his surgery to retire, attempted to bury his patient notes on a beach. The tides and the wind had other plans and scattered the files along the beach for all to see.
This week, Relationships Aotearoa quite suddenly had to confront this question after it became impossible to continue to deliver services to its clients. Most of the client files – if not all – of them would be extremely personal and sensitive in nature.
We were able to provide some high level advice on obligations, the need to keep the information secure, the need to ensure clients were able to access the information and the need to get those files to other providers the clients might move to.
It is important in these kinds of situations to very promptly develop a plan – or to have one already in place - that reassures clients that their very sensitive information will be treated appropriately in the transition and beyond.
We are always available to help agencies identify the relevant considerations in situations like this. There will be issues of consent, patient safety, and file security to be taken into account. However, to fully understand the right thing to do takes a bit of time, and a methodical approach, and a lawyerly examination of documents such as any funding agreements, internal policies, and statements made to clients when they initially signed up for the service.
In the meantime, our advice is to sort the client files into urgent and non-urgent. There is an immediate need to ensure files that are needed in order to provide ongoing services are accessible, and that adequate safeguards are put in place to ensure those only go to the appropriate people and agencies.
Files relating to people who received services in the past will be less urgent, but no less important. One approach that has been used well in the past is to nominate a trustworthy agency to hold those files as an agent of the organisation that is closing down. Clients could be told about this ‘honest broker’ agency and be given a specific time to recover their own files, after which the remaining files could be archived or disposed of.
If anyone has any concerns with how records from their time with Relationships Aotearoa will be maintained, they should, at first instance check out the webpage, and monitor announcements. We will keep in touch with developments, and will provide further advice and guidance as needed.