Information should be provided
Musician Shin Hae-chul passed away unexpectedly recently after undergoing abdominal surgery. The police raided the hospital that performed the operation and seized medical records to discover whether there was any malpractice. Separately, the National Health Insurance Corporation’s routine practice of providing medical records to investigative authorizes was criticized during the annual National Assembly audit. While some argued that medical records must be protected for privacy sake, others said such a restriction will hinder investigations.
At the recent audit into the National Health Insurance Corporation by the National Assembly, concerns were raised over its provision of medical records to investigative authorities.
Some lawmakers said more than 4.35 million pieces of information have been provided to the prosecution and police over the past four years and six months, which is a serious violation of privacy.
Privacy, of course, needs to be protected under the Constitution, but the right to be protected in all circumstances is not absolute. Privacy can be restricted by law if necessary, just like physical freedom. An investigative authority seeks to obtain a warrant to detain a suspect when there is a concern of a flight risk or evidence destruction. Just like such a restriction, privacy can be limited by law when necessary.
Privacy protection and implementation of the criminal justice system must be balanced, and one cannot be valued more than the other. The police seek to obtain the minimum amount of information for investigative purposes under the law and always make requests in a written form. The health insurance corporation also provides records to the police after internal reviews. Therefore, it is far-fetched to argue that investigative authorities are collecting personal information illegally.
Medical records from the health agency are used to speedily apprehend murder, robbery and kidnapping suspects or to investigate insurance fraud. They are only used when the medical records are key evidence. Based on this information, law enforcement officers can stake out spots near hospitals where suspects were treated in the past to make arrests. Checking medical records is crucial when investigating insurance fraud. In August, the Jongam Police Precinct in Seoul arrested five major insurance fraud suspects who collected a total of 4.2 billion won ($3.8 million) illegally.
The key in this debate is whether the information was abused or not and how the details were handled after they were provided. The police ask the health corporation for the least amount of crucial information for the investigation. The police request the medical records of the families of suspects only when there is reasonable doubt that the relatives are hiding those in question.
The National Health Insurance Corporation also has no duty to provide information when the investigative authorities ask for medical records. It, in fact, often denies requests after internal evaluation. The police then try to obtain the information by seeking court warrants when the records are absolutely necessary to push an investigation forward.
In order to resolve the misunderstanding that the police are collecting medical records indiscriminately, the police will put more effort into more clearly stating the need to obtain the information.
Furthermore, the police will try to reduce requests of suspects’ family members’ medical records.
All medical information provided to the police is handed over to the prosecution after an investigation ends and any electronic data is deleted under protocol. When an investigator leaks medical information provided by the health corporation, he or she faces severe criminal punishment, including up to five years in prison.
Furthermore, the police also conducts routine audits in order to prevent leaks of private information and use of information outside of investigations.
Providing medical records to investigative authorities must be considered a means to harmoniously protect privacy while successfully conducting an investigation. Rigid control over the information or banning its provision will hinder proper law enforcement activities.
Head of the Investigation Division of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency