The federal Privacy Commissioner has asked the Ottawa Hospital to explain the presence of a camera that was recording patients in one of the hospital’s waiting rooms at the General campus, Capital Current has learned.

This is a closer view of the camera before it was removed. It is on top of the monitor to the left. [Photo @ Cara Powell]

And while the hospital contends no “identifiable patient information was collected,” it has disconnected the camera and is now reviewing the matter with the advertising firm that installed it “in light of the concern raised.”

The federal privacy commissioner contacted the hospital in response to questions from Capital Current, which had spoken with sources at the hospital who were concerned that a camera that was apparently recording patients in the radiology department waiting room might be a violation of privacy. The camera was located above a television.

Technologists in the medical imaging department first noticed a camera installed above their waiting room televisions in November 2018, Capital Current was told by a radiology department source, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal. 

 “I don’t think people, patients that are waiting, would appreciate knowing that their face and eyes are being recorded to any kind of camera,” the source said. “We should have been informed prior to having to inquire.” 

Following questions from the radiology staff, a sign was placed beneath the television sometime in December. The sign read: “This webcam does not record voices or faces, just the number of people who view the screen.”

“The scenario you’ve outlined does raise some privacy questions,” Tobi Cohen, the communications advisor for the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC), told Capital Current. 

“As we do not know all the details about the technology being used, we have also reached out to the Ottawa Hospital for more information so we might better understand what exactly is happening.”

The hospital employee said that when staff asked why the camera was there, they were told by a manager that the camera was there “to notice how many people look at the screen.”

The televisions, and the camera that has been removed, are provided by Creative Display Technologies, which has a contract with the hospital. According to the Creative Display website, the company offers host sites “cutting edge communication solutions” in exchange for the company’s “right to sell advertising and sponsorship opportunities to local, regional or national advertising clients.” 

The televisions in the hospital show healthcare related advertisements and also provide information on rehabilitation services, convalescence, and pharmaceuticals.

Creative Display offers host sites a “revenue-sharing program,” the company says on its website.

Kevin Sealy, the president and CEO of Creative Display, says the company is deferring comment to the hospital.

“Per our agreement with TOH we are not permitted to share contractual or operational information without prior consent or direction from TOH,” Sealy said in a written statement.

The hospital employee told Capital Current that in the radiology department “over 200 people come into our waiting room … a lot of people are staring at the commercials, they have nothing else to look at for, like, two hours when they’re waiting for an X-ray.”

According to the staff member, when the technologists first noticed the camera in November, they contacted hospital security and asked for it to be removed.

“Within a few days it was put back up…we were informed that it does not record our voices, only our eyes and our face,” the hospital employee said.

In a written statement, the Ottawa Hospital’s communications co-ordinator, Michaela Schreiter, said the camera has been disconnected pending a review.

“The privacy of patients is a top priority for The Ottawa Hospital,” Schreiter said. “No identifiable patient information was collected by this firm’s device, which is now disconnected, and we are working with the firm in question in light of the concern raised to ensure that all policies and procedures were followed in its installation.”

Cohen says the federal privacy commissioner has also reached out to the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario about the case. Jurisdiction over the privacy concerns could be shared since the provincial commissioner has oversight over hospitals while the federal commissioner oversees how advertising companies collect, use, and discloses any personal information gathered.

Even though the hospital says no “identifiable” patient information was collected, staff working in the radiology department still have concerns. “A lot of us didn’t feel comfortable knowing that we were being recorded,” the source said.