FREDERICTON - Confidential medical information relating to hundreds of patients who received health services in New Brunswick and British Columbia has gone missing.

New Brunswick Health Minister Mike Murphy said Tuesday four computer cartridges containing medicare billing information for 485 New Brunswick residents who received care in British Columbia, and for 133 British Columbia residents who accessed services in New Brunswick, has been missing for about two months.

The minister said a full review is under way, police are investigating and patients whose confidential medical information may have been compromised are being made aware of the situation.

Despite the breach of confidentiality and the long passage of time since the information went missing, Murphy said people should not be overly concerned.

"There is no evidence any of this has been misused,'' Murphy said in response to questions in the provincial legislature.

"It is on technology that is only used in data centres. We believe it was misplaced. There is no evidence otherwise, and we are doing a full review.''

Murphy said the computer cartridges, which contain tapes, were sent by courier to Richmond, B.C., on Oct . 3 under a reciprocal billing agreement between the two provinces.

The cartridges arrived on Oct. 5, but almost immediately vanished, without being put in the hands of British Columbia medicare authorities.

Murphy said the exact sequence of events is not clear, but it appears New Brunswick medicare authorities were not made aware of the loss until Oct. 25.

He said the province's director of medicare operations did not know about the vanished information until Nov. 29.

Murphy said he found out late last week.

He didn't explain the failure of communication within the department except to say that the Health Department is very large and the person first told about the loss of the cartridges "works in a cubicle on the second floor.''

That employee did not pass on the information to the director of her department, who only heard about the breach during conversations much later with colleagues in British Columbia.

"We are doing a full review to make sure this does not happen again,'' Murphy said.

As well, he said the province immediately issued a directive to British Columbia insisting that it now accept billing information on encrypted compact discs, rather than on the out-of-date cartridges.

"Most provinces use encrypted compact discs with the exception of British Columbia which did not have the technology and has always requested that it be on tapes,'' Murphy said.

"This procedure has been in place since 1989, at their request. I issued a directive yesterday informing B.C. we would no longer send any information to them unless on encrypted DVDs, which they have finally agreed to accept.''

In Victoria, B.C. Health Minister George Abbott said he suspects the tapes were lost and not stolen.

"That having been said, this is very concerning given we don't want to have this kind of material go awry,'' he said. "We're taking steps to ensure this kind of situation doesn't happen again.''

David Loukidelis, B.C.'s information and privacy commissioner, said his office was investigating the loss.

"I am deeply concerned that unencrypted personal data has apparently been shipped in a manner that on its face doesn't meet the ministry's legal duty to take reasonable steps to protect personal information,'' he said in a release.

Loukidelis said he has received a commitment from the B.C. Health Ministry that it will stop sending data on unencrypted magnetic tapes.

"I am appalled that health information is being transmitted in such an insecure way,'' he said. "Even if the tapes require proprietary hardware and software to read them, this puts the privacy of British Columbians at risk.''

The incident is just the latest in a series of stumbles as Canada moves towards electronic health record technology.

New Brunswick hopes to have an electronic record system up and running by 2009, but privacy issues are becoming increasingly important, especially following a number of confidentiality breaches in several provinces.

Frank Work, Alberta's information and privacy commissioner, recently expressed frustration with failures in his province to protect personal information.

"It's just nuts that we're not looking after this stuff better,'' Work said.

The comments came after Work's investigation into the theft of four laptops, containing personal health information, from a Capital Health office in Edmonton.

More than 20,000 individuals had to be notified, and in some cases it took nearly three months to track them down.

Murphy has promised legislation in the spring to protect the province's electronic health files.

A government-appointed committee recently said New Brunswick should hire a full-time privacy commissioner to oversee health information issues and bring in uniform guidelines for the collection and use of the data.