March 10, 2020 | 11:49 AM GMT+0800 Last Edit: May 12, 2020
Data Privacy Vis-à-vis Public Health
Following the President’s declaration of a public health emergency (PHE) concerning COVID-19, it is imperative upon the government to strike a balance between individual data privacy vis-à-vis public health interests, including the public’s right to know.
We wish to emphasize that the Data Privacy Act does not prevent the government from doing its job. It follows that the DPA should not prevent government, especially public health entities, from processing personal and sensitive personal information when necessary to fulfill their mandates during a public health emergency.
Government Agencies’ access to COVID-19 information
The proper handling of the health information of Coronavirus patients is crucial in stopping the spread of the virus. Government agencies mandated to address the PHE must have access to the relevant information to accomplish the purpose.
The Department of Health has been cautious in upholding patients’ confidentiality. It is releasing only information that is necessary to protect public health during this time of emergency without sacrificing its duty to determine cases and conduct contact-tracing to contain the virus.
The DOH will be walking a fine line in releasing a COVID-19 patient information to the public. Releasing patient information could produce fear and distress but may also make the people adopt the right precautions to stop the spread of the virus. During times of emergency, it is best to adhere to global best practices (as espoused by the General Medical Council, UK.) when assessing what type of patient personal information to disclose. We need to consider:
1) The potential harm or distress to the patient arising from the disclosure.
2) The potential damage to trust in doctors and health institutions in general.
and weigh it versus:
1) The potential harm to the public if the information is not disclosed.
2) The potential benefits to individuals and society arising from the release of information.
The DOH must continue performing its role and make that crucial call on what information is necessary for release to the public.
Safeguarding Patient Information; Upholding Right to Privacy
Revealing the identities to the public or providing information that could accurately identify people who are under investigation or have contracted the disease is counter-productive and could do more harm than good. If people believe that their identities will be released to the public when they come out for testing, they may be discouraged to come out—making it more difficult for the DOH and the rest of the inter-agency task force to identify more COVID-19 cases.
Any unnecessary disclosure of personal information may stunt government efforts to identify and test individuals with confirmed cases effectively and may have serious consequences, which could be far worse than the disease itself.
Responsible sharing of verified information
Only pertinent information necessary in facilitating contact tracing should be collected, such as but not limited to: travel history, and frequented locations. Likewise, the only information required to enable contact tracing shall be disclosed to the public.
We call on the public and the media to be responsible when sharing and publishing information to ensure the health and safety of everyone. It is prudent to confirm with the DOH’s official statistics and other information before sharing any pieces of information, especially information that would lead to the identification of an individual.
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