Leaks put every patient in every hospital in real and present danger

Leaks put every patient in every hospital in real and present danger

We don’t know her name, nor should we. We don’t know anything about her other than that she terminated a pregnancy in Ireland in the first month it was legally possible. 

We believe she had a medical abortion, meaning physical intervention rather than pills. 

We don’t know if she went home to recuperate or went to a friend’s home. The entire thing, start to finish, is her business and only her business.

Except that some ‘principled’ person decided to get involved with, we assume, the objective of making her regret what she had done. 

This person, it is believed, got details of the termination from someone within the hospital. 

Hence the ‘principled’ person’s ability to get right up close and personal to the woman, via her phone.

Before we go any further, be clear on one thing. When I talk about a ‘principled’ person, I’m mocking only one person— the one who stole patient data and used it for their own purposes.

I believe many of those manning the pro-life barricades do so with no motivation other than what they perceive to be the prevention of killing. 

Some are deeply religious and have passionate beliefs about the ensoulment of the foetus. 

Some of them are not religious at all but believe that abortion, for any reason at any time, is morally wrong and that someone has to stand against the popular consensus.

During last year’s referendum campaign that led to the changing of the law, many of those on the pro-life side who were prominent in mainstream and social media suffered for their beliefs. 

They were described as Neanderthal anti-feminists belonging to an abusive and dying Church. 

They were treated by some interviewers with a civil distaste much more pronounced than the distaste offered to Holocaust or climate change deniers. 

Leaks put every patient in every hospital in real and present danger

They fought what they believe to be the good fight. They were roundly defeated and, as 2019 began, Ireland for the first time began to legally provide terminations.

Because it was clear that anti-abortion protests were highly likely at sites providing terminations, the idea of exclusion zones was mooted. 

Nobody seems to have anticipated the dire possibility that someone inside a hospital would leak to a third party the confidential data of a woman terminating a pregnancy in that hospital. 

But that’s what is now claimed has happened. 

The woman involved claims she was pursued with offers of a scan and when she cottoned on that something was very wrong with the whole business, was — she says — abused as “disgusting” by the man she reached when she researched the phone number from whence came the text.

It may be that this patient, and others, was tricked into revealing the procedure she’d undergone by a social media site using an address confusingly close to one of the HSE’s stores. 

This would be a vile misuse of social media and — we have to hope — is also illegal and actionable. 

One way or the other, we have to hope the woman involved makes a detailed complaint to An Garda Síochána, because, although the hospital has indicated it is going to investigate, let’s face it, the forensic capacities of the average hospital are less than impressive.

Assume, just for a moment, that someone within the hospital leaked the information to the pro-lifers. 

Leaks put every patient in every hospital in real and present danger

If that is possible, without leaving a trail and leading to dismissal, then every patient in every hospital in this country is in real and present danger. 

Because of the case of Maurice McCabe and Pulse, we’re aware that the gardaí have a system which electronically notes every visit to it by an individual garda. 

Maybe it’s time confidential patient data in health institutions was subject to a similar tracking system.

When we go into a hospital, or as is an increasing reality for older people, when we go into a nursing home, we don’t expect the experience to be perfect. Rather the reverse. 

This is one of the few areas of life where research indicates the reality tends to be an improvement on the previously-imagined. It gets better as if goes along. 

Once we get past A&E chairs and trolleys, for the most part, we’re satisfied with the treatment we get. Lapses in standards are red-lighted by Hiqa.

Our negative expectations may prepare us for waits and for the occasional medic lowering their stress levels by using us as a metaphorical punch bag, but the one thing we never, ever expect is that one of the people around us at this, arguably our weakest and most vulnerable point, might sneak damaging personal details of our illness to a third party. 

Nobody expects that an alcoholic celebrity, admitted in the throes of delirium tremens, will have the cause of their hospital admission offered up by one of the staff. 

It may be offered up outside the hospital by a co-worker or fellow-party-goer snapping a photograph of the celeb stumbling or throwing up, but a warm blanket of anonymity wraps itself impartially around every human in a healthcare institution once the human earns the title ‘Patient’. 

So babies admitted carrying evidence of parental mistreatment are not followed throughout their lives by the story.

The blanket of anonymity is severely one-sided in its application. 

The patient can unwrap it any time and share all of the details of their treatment. 

That’s their prerogative, and it causes much teeth-grinding among hospital staff, because they cannot go on media to query any of the details, but must stay grimly silent as the hospital’s PR people put out a statement indicating that their rules preclude them from publicly discussing any aspect of an individual patient case.

For the most part, the unspoken promise to guard patient’s secrets holds fast. 

I remember a journalist, several years ago, talking to me about spotting and being spotted by a government minister in the corridor of a private hospital while the minister was being taken in a wheelchair from an area devoted to oncology. 

The journalist wanted to contact him to reassure him that he would never do anything with the information accidentally handed to him because it had happened in a hospital and that location was sacrosanct. (He issued a statement within hours, obviating the need for reassurance but leaving the journalist with an obscure sense of being underestimated by him.)

The hate-filled reckless side of the pro-life movement never seems to go away. 

Leaks put every patient in every hospital in real and present danger

Thirty years ago, doctors offering information about getting a termination in England were afraid to be named by media, lest they would be attacked. 

Pro-life extremists in the US have killed countless medics providing terminations. 

Now, in Ireland, they are prepared to sacrifice our collective right to privacy in order to deliver what they perceive as a moral lesson to a transgressor.

The woman at the heart of this has already done some service by going public with it. 

If it was internet trickery, she has alerted other potential victims to it. 

If patient data was leaked from within the hospital, identifying the perpetrator and preventing recurrence may take rather longer.

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