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McGill Law Professor Derek Jones outlined the importance of human rights. (Emma Hameau / McGill Tribune)

Disclosing medical information in the work place

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On Nov. 19, the Comparative Health Systems Program (CHSP), a non-profit organization within McGill, hosted a lecture on medical information privacy and its implications in the workplace. The evening’s lecture began with an image of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) 1976 year-end report. Among the many issues the WHO addressed, including female genital mutilation and infectious diseases, the privacy and protection of medical information was highlighted as an emerging problem due to the various technological, medical, and human rights advancements made in the last 50 years. The pace of scientific discoveries today is faster than ever before, yet privacy of medical information continues to be a problem that both individuals and corporations address on a daily basis. 

Guest speaker and McGill Law Professor Derek Jones spoke to the audience about concerns dealing with privacy. In practicing law, balancing individual rights with the moral and social values of society can be difficult.

“The question I hope to address tonight is: To what extent do human rights balance against disclosure of medical information in a work setting.” Jones said.

Jones explained that ‘the law of humans rights’ is absolute and is given the highest priority in a court of law—violations to human rights will always be prosecuted. But the issues of privacy and medical information in the corporate world has not been as straightforward, and its evolution can be summarized in three parts. 

“[First,] the HIV/AIDS emergence in the ’80s [brought] medical information privacy into the spotlight,” said Jones. “Then, in the late ’90s and early 2000s it was the disclosure and release of genetic information. And in the last five years or so, the disclosure of depression and mental health information has begun to emerge the central issue where privacy is concerned.” 

It is estimated that more than $50 billion worth of corporate income is lost annually in Canada due to mental health issues, including depression. Up until the early 20th century, laws existed in Canada in which individuals could be forcefully committed, without a proper diagnosis or form of legal protection. Mental health issues, however, continue to be stigmatized in society. It is therefore not surprising that around 71 per cent of employees conceal issues concerning depression for fear of discrimination. Yet around one in five individuals, of every age and ethnicity, are afflicted with some form of mental health issue, and with it being such so opaque and widespread, the question now becomes: Aside from the individual and their physician, who else needs to know?

The answer is perhaps not as clear-cut as one might think. While laws exist in Canada to protect against discrimination based on mental disability, certain issues occasionally arise wherein the disclosure of mental health information is essential for the daily functions and duties of a job. For example, a professional struggling with depression or anxiety may not be able to provide services to their clients at the expected standard.  

To conclude the talk, Jones stressed the importance of considering opposing viewpoints in this issue; however, Jones also stated that there will never be a definitive or decisive answer to the problem of medical information privacy. 

“Problems associated with mental health arise from both its concealment as well as its over-focus,” said Jones. 

The answer lies somewhere in the middle. 

“The Quebec Bar exam for law school graduates has five questions concerning mental health,” Jones explained. “After a thorough review by human rights professionals, these questions have been cut down to two.”

Just as the symbol of law—the scales of Madam Justice—never really stop teetering, the solution to disclosure and privacy must always be a dynamic one. 

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