Stricter rules are needed
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 National Assembly’s audit of the National Health Insurance Corporation, Rep. Kim Yong-ik of the New Politics Alliance for Democracy criticized the agency for recklessly providing medical information to investigative authorities en masse. He stressed that the practice, although it was intended to support probes, should be strictly restricted.
According to an announcement made by the health corporation, a total 190 million cases have been provided to government agencies, public institutions, investigative authorities and courts over the past three years. Among them, 1.87 million details, or about 1 percent, were provided to the prosecution and police for investigations.
The criticism was aimed at whether that data was provided properly and legally. If rights were infringed in the process of supplying the information was also key to the controversy.
Authorities said medical information was necessary to investigate insurance fraud, draft-dodging and hospital corruption. They also said the records were necessary in order to apprehend suspects. They said the information was obtained through legal processes and that they are not abusing the records.
It is known, however, that much of the information is used to learn about the careers, income and residence information of the suspects.
A patient’s consent is not required to collect medical information for treatment purposes. But to collect other personal information, a patient’s consent is a must. When a medical institution provides a patient’s personal information to a third party, consent is mandatory unless the situation is an emergency. The legal system is meant to protect privacy.
It is necessary to allow the transfer of information en masse in order to effectively operate the health insurance program. The problem is when the personal details of particular individuals is provided for investigations. According to the law, a public authority is allowed to request private information for an investigation without a warrant. The Constitutional Court, however, ruled in the past that it is necessary to strictly restrict the use of sensitive private information such as religious convictions, mental and physical defects and sex lives. The medical records of patients must be protected at all cost.
Last year, it was revealed at the National Assembly audit that medical treatment records of a railroad labor union executive who participated in a strike, as well as those of his wife, were provided to investigative authorities. The law was abused in that case.
In order to protect privacy more thoroughly, collective information provided to the government must be adjusted so that it will be impossible to identify individuals among the groups.
When investigative authorities request individual patients’ information, the health corporation should provide an answer in the form of yes or no answers by filling out a questionnaire. For example, the investigative authority should ask the corporation to verify whether a suspect was treated at a specific hospital for a specific illness at a specific time and date, and the corporation should answer the question in the format of yes or no.
When private information is provided, the individual must be notified.
When personal medical records are leaked and abused, it can create a serious aftermath by influencing an individual’s career, insurance benefits and financial activity. Leaks of medical information are a clear violation of the constitutional right to privacy. This must be protected more strongly.
*Vice president of the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs
by Shin Young-suk