January 18, 2013 · Updated 1:25 PM

Letters are going out to more than 38,000 people in B.C. whose personal data was copied onto a data stick and shared without permission last year.

Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid announced details Monday of a data breach that led the ministry to fire seven health ministry staff and contractors involved in patient research related to approval of drugs for B.C.’s Pharmacare program.

MacDiarmid said there were no names attached to the health data, which included personal health numbers, gender, date of birth and postal codes, as well as information from Statistics Canada’s Canadian community health survey.

The data did include hospital admissions and discharges, medication history and Medical Services Plan claims.

The Statistics Canada survey included information about patient health status, mental, physical and sexual health, lifestyle information and use of health services.

Three separate breaches of ministry privacy policy have been identified so far. None included names, social insurance numbers or financial information, and no evidence has been found that the information was used for anything other than medical research, MacDiarmid said.

An internal ministry and police investigation is ongoing, and the ministry would not disclose the identity of anyone involved.

Most of the fired employees and contractors have identified themselves publicly, and at least one has filed a wrongful dismissal lawsuit.

MacDiarmid said there were two data breach incidents in June 2012. The first one prompted the letters to be sent.

The second was a data stick provided to a ministry contractor containing similar information on five million individuals, including length of hospital stay and health condition, such as whether they have diabetes.

The third case of a data stick shared without permission, password protection or encryption took place in October, 2010.

It contained diagnostic information on 21,000 people for 262 chronic conditions, including prescription history for certain drugs.