Health ministry to investigate after provincial lab drug testing error

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The Ministry of Health will be conducting “further investigations” to determine whether hundreds of botched drug test reports had any effect on patients.

The statement came in an email to the Leader-Post from the ministry after the Roy Romanow Provincial Laboratory indicated Tuesday that a software coding error had led to the generation of inaccurate reports.

The coding error first occurred on Oct. 25, according to Patrick O’Byrne, the lab’s executive director.

The lab tests roughly 75,000 samples each year. Each sample is tested for 42 different drugs. The tests give doctors an idea of what drugs a patient is using, which helps them determine proper treatment, according to O’Byrne.

“The error was caught, and we thought it had been corrected.”

However, beginning Oct. 30, two of the 42 drugs tested for — codeine and diphenhydramine (Benadryl) — stopped appearing on reports.

“The reports that we had originally sent out to physicians indicated that the patients did not have these drugs in their system,” he said.

“But that was wrong.”

It wasn’t until Nov. 28 that the coding error was actually rectified. By then, 484 inaccurate reports had been generated, pertaining to 458 individuals.

In cases where patients had either one or both drugs in their system, the report showed no trace of either.

“We have a process if we find an error,” he said, noting that amended reports were sent to doctors on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1.

Letters, he said, were sent on Dec. 1 to each doctor who had requested one of the erroneous reports.

“We also phoned the clinics that most often use this service and alerted them to this.”

Codeine and Benadryl results are important, but not “critically important,” for patients undergoing “drugs of abuse” testing, O’Byrne said.

“Our physician agreed that this error is unlikely to have had a significant impact on patient care,” he added. 

Regarding what risk the error posed to patients, the ministry responded that the impact of an “isolated false negative test result for these drugs is usually minimal.”

Patients are generally monitored for long periods of time, the email said, and a single inaccurate result would be “unlikely to alter patient management.”

However, if the inaccurate result was for an initial test, it might have more of an effect on care decisions, the email said.

Steps have been taken by the lab to ensure similar coding errors cannot occur in the future, O’Byrne said.

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