Alarm as NHS files go up in smoke

THE-LATEST EXCLUSIVE

Deborah Hobson

London flag ship hospital Chelsea & Westminster is at the centre of allegations of a major cover-up over the loss of up to 240,000 patient files in a huge warehouse blaze.

The-Latest can reveal that the six-storey Iron Mountain paper storage building in Twelvetrees Crescent, Bow, was burnt to the ground along with the records of more than 600 of the company's customers in July.

Former NHS consultant Richard Taylor MP, a member of the House of Commons Health Select Committee, said: "This sounds like a disaster and gives support to the moving of NHS files onto IT storages because electronic records are a lot safer."

He added: "I've got files in Iron Mountain boxes and I won't be sending them for storage now."

Chelsea and Westminster hospital said, in a carefully worded statement: "The Trust can confirm that a large number of old medical records were lost in the fire but we can reassure patients that only medical records of current patients that were more than two years old were stored in the warehouse."

The statement went on: "The Trust can further reassure patients that no active medical records were affected by the fire and the key information held in the paper record is also held in the electronic paper record, which Chelsea and Westminster has helped to pioneer."

A second warehouse owned by the firm, in Ottawa, Canada, was also hit by an inferno recently. Iron Mountain Inc. is based in Boston, USA. The company has an estimated annual revenue of $2.1 billion and dominates the records management and data protection market. Its UK subsidiary, Iron Mountain (UK) Ltd is currently bidding for data management services in the NHS.

Melissa Mahoney, director of corporate communications at Iron Mountain, said at the time of the east London blaze, that data stored at the 126,000 sq. ft unit were  'archived, inactive business records'. She added:  "That's not to say that the records are unimportant, but the inactive records that are moved off site for long-term storage are less important than active business records used to run businesses. Customers keep them for long-term preservation requirements, but they are not referenced very frequently". Mahoney confirmed that an investigation was set up to determine what happened and why the fire suppression systems were not able to contain the blaze.

Nine years ago, three fires occurred in an Iron Mountain facility in South Brunswick, New Jersey, USA. In a dramatic new development, an ex-employee of Chelsea & Westminster, who does not wish to be named, has revealed to (The-Latest.Com) that the hospital has been frantically trying to conceal the true fate of thousands of archived patient medical records stored with Iron Mountain. The hospital which serves the communities of London's wealthiest boroughs, allegedly archives and stores its patient medical files off site just 2 years after final treatment or consultation and pays Iron Mountain  £60.00 for retrieval of each file. In what was apparently a cost cutting exercise, Chelsea & Westminster did not keep electronic copies of the information destroyed in the fire.

Department of Health legal guidelines, as presented in the NHS code of practice Parts 1 and 2 (April 2006) for records management, lists the minimum period of retention for NHS records. It states for example, that the files of patients involved in clinical trials should be kept 15 years after the conclusion of treatment and for children and young people records should be kept until the patient's 25th birthday or 26th if the young person was 17 at conclusion of treatment or kept 8 years after the patient's death if death occurred before their 18th birthday.

Chelsea & Westminster NHS Trust employs some 2,200 people and had an income in 2004-2005 of over  £190 million. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife Cherie chose the hospital for the birth of their youngest son Leo, in May 2000.

A number of other leading London hospitals have storage contracts with Iron Mountain: they include Kings College Hospital NHS Trust, Wandsworth NHS Primary Care Trust and Royal Free Hampstead NHS who have admitted losing x-rays relating to deceased patients in the July London storage facility fire.

Disaster and controversy have dogged Iron Mountain in recent years.

On 27 July 2003, Tristan Arkless, a 22-year-old employee of Iron Mountain (UK) Ltd received a crushed vertebra and fractured pelvis after he fell 3.5 metres from a temporary platform erected between two racking units in a warehouse at the company's premises in Silvertown, London. Mr Arkless and three temporary workers were attempting to remove archive boxes from the higher shelves in the warehouse, with no effective measures to prevent the fall. Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Inspector John Crookes, who investigated the incident, said:  "This is an example of what can happen when work at height is not properly planned and when young inexperienced workers are not supervised. It highlights the need for companies to make sure safety procedures are in place whenever their employees are at work".

Iron Mountain (UK) Ltd pleaded guilty to breaching Section 2 (1) and 3 (1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 at the City of London Magistrates' Court on 26 October 2005. The company was fined  £20,000 for each breach, the maximum penalty that can be issued in a Magistrates' court. It was also ordered to pay  £5000 to the victim and court costs of  £2,376.00.

Sensitive customer information has been lost by Iron Mountain on three occasions in the last 2 years. Back-up tapes containing the private information of thousands employees of Long Island Rail Road in New York, USA were lost by Iron Mountain during  "a routine delivery" to one of their storage units in April 2006. In July 2005 the company mislaid a container of back-up tapes from several banks containing the account details of the banks customers and in March 2005 the company lost computer tapes containing the personal data of around 600,000 present and past employees of Time Warner.

Unison, Britain's biggest trade union with more than 1.3 million members, many of them healthcare workers, has been highly critical of the outsourcing of NHS services to private contractors like Iron Mountain. It regards this practice as the creeping and damaging privatisation of the NHS.

In September, Unison held its first national NHS walkout for 18 years after the government announced that it had struck a deal with German company DHL to privatise the supplying of goods and equipment to hospitals. The contract will result in the transfer of 1,700 NHS staff to the private sector. DHL is best known for delivering documents and freight but has evolved into a company that also specialises in logistics and supply chain work on behalf of organisations across the world.

Its deal with the NHS is one of many contracts it has as part of its DHL Exel logistics division, which was formed in 2005.

Two of Iron Mountain's top executives have worked for DHL. Richard Reese, Chairman and Chief Executive at Iron Mountain was Director of DHL's business in Western Europe and North America. Marc Duale, who was appointed President of Iron Mountain Europe in May 2006, was Chief Operating Officer of DHL Worldwide Express Asia-Pacific and Middle East business. He was previously Director of DHL's business in Western Europe and North Africa.

"If you have information about storage company Iron Mountain or if you have had treatment at Chelsea & Westminster hospital in the last 2 years, please let us know. Email us on contribsed@the-latest.com"

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