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Blunt Hypocrisy? The case of public office holders medical disclosure

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According to Glenn Greenwald, “The way things are supposed to work is that we’re supposed to know virtually everything about what they [the government] do: that’s why they’re called public servants. They’re supposed to know virtually nothing about what we do: that’s why we’re called private individuals.”

Since the inception of the Fourth Republic on the 7th of January 1993, the country has come a long way in how it handles all manner of information. In the very beginning, information about the personal lives of public office holders was virtually impossible to come by. Innuendo and gossip were the order of the day when it came to the state of health of influential public office holders. I clearly remember the rumours surrounding the health of Lieutenant General Winston Mensa-Wood in the early days of the Rawlings presidency, which were denied only for him to sadly pass away. Then there was Albert Bosomtwi-Sam who died in London in 1998 following similar rumours and denials. Others like Kofi Totobi-Kwakye were also rumoured to be unwell but nothing was known about what exactly the problem was.

During the Presidency of J.A. Kufuor, similar rumours were rife regarding the health status of Kwadwo Baah Wiredu and Courage Emmanuel Kobla Quashigah both of whom sadly passed away. Though government never issued any statement in this regard, it did little to quell the rumours or set the records straight. The official line was patient confidentiality ought to be respected.

In 2008, just before the general elections, there was a swirl of information building that then-candidate J.E.A. Mills who later became president was unwell. Blanket denials were issued and pleas for Ghanaians to respect his privacy were made. These rumours never went away even after he became president. The denials continued even though his public appearances dwindled until he lost his life in 2012, under rather bizarre circumstances. Till date whatever afflicted the late president or his cause of death have never been made public.

Clearly, the discussion surrounding the release of health information relating to public office holders is not new. The rapid dissemination of updates concerning the health of a “public person” is now available to a wide audience through Internet communication and social media systems. The “appetite” of the public at large to obtain “breaking news” on medical topics of interest involving recognized political figures, needs to be carefully weighed against the current laws intended to protect the privacy of individuals.
The interesting thing is that in all the examples above, the political party in opposition and its sympathisers have always demanded full disclosure under the pretext that ill health has a serious impact on the delivery of a public office holder. Often, in clear disregard of laws that enshrine an individual’s right to privacy.

As someone practising in the area of health, I wholeheartedly agree that health can have a debilitating influence on workplace performance. In fact, our constitution makes it clear that to hold the highest office in the land, one must be “of sound mind.” Many misconstrue this to indicate the absence of issues of mental health but in reality, the absence of a sound mind can be a result of many health conditions impacting on the brain and its functionality but not the debilitation of the brain itself. That said, I am strongly against any breaches of patient confidentiality and an individual’s right to privacy.

Two recent events both relating to the health of Vice President Bawumia, provide a reason for us to pause and consider the legal and the ethical standards involved in the release of medical information. To start with irrespective of one’s position in public life, they still remain individuals under the Data Protection Act 2012. In this law, it is clear that a data controller (anyone who obtains information including medical records) has a duty of care towards a data subject (the person from whom such information is obtained). It is therefore even illegal for anyone to release the medical records or the publication of same if they became available, unless with the consent of the person to whom those records relate. To do so will be a breach of the law for which prosecution can occur. Even if this didn’t happen, the official if aggrieved could sue under tort law.

Torts are defined as wrongs that result in injury or harm. The primary goal of tort law is to award compensation for damages and to deter others from committing similar acts.
The question, however, arises whether because the cost of healthcare provision for these officials is borne by the taxpayer, there must be an exception to The Data Protection Act ensuring that our right to know is also protected. In my view, this should be approached with an ethical balance. I find it appropriate for the taxpayer to be informed when the health of a public office holder is such that it temporarily impedes his ability to perform his duties. It may be helpful if a timeline is provided regarding their expected return, in a manner that doesn’t put pressure on the ability of the person to heal properly. I, however, do not think the intricacies of the condition or conditions should be laid bare.

I also believe that in the interest of openness and to preserve the sanctity and quality of patient-related medical communication, any such public disclosure should be made by a medic directly involved in the care of the office holder or appointed by the state and not by ministers or political functionaries. I hold this view because the minute politicians begin to meddle in the area of medical technicality; trust is lost especially in a country split right through the middle politically. Medics, on the other hand, are sworn to the Hippocratic Oath, which explicitly addresses the need for privacy in this quote; “Whatever I see or hear in the lives of my patients, whether in connection with my professional practice or not, which ought not to be spoken of outside, I will keep secret, as considering all such things to be private.” Hence, they have a clear understanding of what to divulge and what not to as a means of satisfying the need for taxpayer disclosure.

It is important for us to understand that as taxpayers we need to be informed about what these officials do, how they do them and how our public funds are disbursed for their health and comfort. On the contrary, we have no business knowing what goes on in their private lives whether it relates to their health or family. They have the right to preserve their privacy as judiciously as we preserve ours. We must accept that being in public office doesn’t erode all legal rights a citizen may have irrespective of how high one’s position is. We also have no business speculating and pressurising officials to prove to us that they are well, such actions are unhealthy. They require the same space to recover as we do when we are unwell. We must all not forget that diseases which afflict humans do not segregate against private or public citizens. Therefore, the recovery periods are same.

I will end with these words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Nothing that we despise in other men is inherently absent from ourselves. We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or don’t do, and more in light of what they suffer.” We cannot continue to play musical chairs with this subject and demand to know when in opposition, only to cite the right to privacy when in government. The issue has to be settled and the balance between the law, ethics and the taxpayers right to know put in real perspective. Unless we gird up our loins as a society to do onto each other what is right, this circus of disclosure or non-disclosure will be with us twenty-five years from now when the fourth republic gets to its golden jubilee.

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