Privacy laws allow disclosure of health information: privacy commissioners

TORONTO — Personal health information can be disclosed in emergency situations, say two of Canada's privacy commissioners.

The issue recently arose when the family of 18-year-old Carleton University student Nadia Kajouji blamed the Ottawa university for failing to do enough to inform them of her depression or prevent her suicide.

Suzanne Blanchard, Carleton's vice-president of student services, said counsellors were bound by confidentiality laws.

But Ontario Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian, and B.C. counterpart David Loukidelis, have issued a joint statement saying privacy laws can respond to such situations.

"When there is a significant risk of serious bodily harm, such as suicide, privacy laws in Ontario clearly permit the disclosure of personal information without consent, regardless of age," Cavoukian said in the joint statement. "In such situations, schools may contact parents or others if there are reasonable grounds to believe that it is necessary to do so."

Loukidelis said that if there are compelling circumstances affecting health or safety, or if a person is ill, the B.C. privacy laws allow disclosure to next of kin, school officials, health care workers and others.

"Individual cases can be fuzzy," he said. "But if someone uses common sense and in good faith discloses information, my office is not going to come down on them. Privacy is important, but preserving life is more important."

Both commissioners are launching a joint project to clarify privacy laws where they apply to workers trying to decide whether they can disclose personal health information.

Cavoukian said the goal is to ensure educational institutions understand privacy laws before problems arise.

But Cavoukian also noted that her office has dealt with this issue in the past, issuing a fact sheet in 2005, entitled Disclosure of Information Permitted in Emergency or other Urgent Circumstances.

The sheet was designed to clarify Ontario's Personal Health Information Protection Act, which also allows health care providers, such as mental health counsellors, to disclose personal health information to a doctor or parent, when necessary, to eliminate or reduce a risk of serious bodily harm.

Commissioners Cavoukian and Loukidelis said those responsible for the health and safety of others must be aware of the privacy laws and should understand when they can disclose personal health information in emergencies.

"I know that frontline decisions have to be made quickly and sometimes the facts may not be as clear as you'd like," said Loukidelis. "But there's no doubt that privacy laws support disclosures to protect health and safety".