November 28, 2021 November 28, 2021

Patzer: It’s time we talk about medical privacy

Posted on 21 October 2021 by Jeremy Patzer, Opinion

MP Jeremy Patzer

With the growing push for vaccine mandates across all realms of society, the latest of which comes from the federal government for federally regulated work and travel, as well as duly elected officials potentially being barred from taking their seat in the House of Commons, a conversation about medical privacy is overdue. Dr. Wasko, the Physician Executive for Integrated Rural Health in Saskatchewan, recently demanded on Twitter that I publicly reveal my vaccination status. I declined, and here’s why. 

Canadian law takes medical privacy seriously, and rightfully so. This past May, federal, provincial and territorial Privacy Commissioners released a joint statement  in response to the growing push for vaccine mandates, advising caution regarding the disclosure of personal health information. 

They urge the incorporation of privacy best practices to ensure the highest level of privacy protection, considering the sensitivity of the personal health information collected, used, or disclosed. They also reiterate the importance of consent and trust. The statement reads: 

“For vaccine passports introduced by and for the use of public bodies, consent alone is not a sufficient basis upon which to proceed under existing public sector privacy laws. Furthermore, consent alone may not be meaningful for people dealing with governments and public bodies that often have a monopoly over the services they provide. The legal authority for such passports should therefore not rely on consent alone.” 

Trust, then, is a necessary precursor to the revealing of personal health information. Did the local Physician Executive, for example, consider the professional importance of building trust when he openly called for the public disclosure of my personal vaccine status? It seems to contradict the spirit, if not the letter of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Saskatchewan’s Code of Conduct regarding confidentiality. 

Governments must also earn the trust of citizens, and they risk undermining it if the demands for disclosure in return for basic freedoms go ahead without reference to limiting principles or legal safeguards, including the conditions under which they would end the mandates and destroy the records. The Privacy Commissioners note that “vaccine passports must be decommissioned if, at any time, it is determined that they are not a necessary, effective or proportionate response to address their public health purposes.”

Health privacy should not be taken lightly, even when it comes to vaccines. Am I uncomfortable disclosing my vaccine status? Not at all. I’ve been happy to tell many people in confidence—people I trust. I’m also happy to state publicly that I believe vaccines are an important tool in combatting COVID-19. However, I am concerned about the precedent the disclosure of one’s vaccine status sets for the erosion of medical privacy, without due concern for privacy protection.

I also resist the growing pressure on anyone to release their status publicly. The decision to vaccinate or not isn’t always easy for individuals with a complex medical history, minorities who have been mistreated by authorities, or those with religious or conscientious concerns. It’s for these reasons we have long recognized the importance of medical privacy, and why the decision to vaccinate should be made individually, based on your own consultations with your physician, with consideration of your personal context. That context is not something everyone will feel comfortable sharing publicly, and Canadians deserve the right to that privacy. 

It’s time we treat Canadians like adults, respect their ability to make important health decisions for themselves, and respect their privacy. Perhaps if the government did so, we would see more buy-in on vaccinations—people would trust our institutions and happily consent. 

So, to the many journalists who have emailed me to declare my vaccination status publicly, and to Dr. Wasko—no, I will not be a part of campaigns to expose the medical decisions of myself, or my fellow legislators. Let’s be above these bully tactics. 

Jeremy Patzer is the Member of Parliament for Cypress Hills—Grasslands.

MP Jeremy Patzer

© HOC-CDC Credit: Christian Diotte, House of Commons Photo Services

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