This question comes from a member of the South Australian Ambulance Service
I need guidance re what is confidential as far as Health Care Act … medical in confidence, can we disclose to police the time of an event, or the address we picked the patient up? In one case the patient was assaulted but did not wish to say.
For the purposes of the Health Care Act 2008 (SA):
“personal information” means information or an opinion, whether true or not, relating to a natural person or the affairs of a natural person whose identity is apparent, or can reasonably be ascertained, from the information or opinion.
I cannot find any judicial authority that has considered this definition to help define what is or is not included.
Information about the address that the ambulance was called to, and the time are, perhaps not personal information as that is information about what the ambulance officers did, not the patient. But the address from where they were collected is information relating to them and it maybe something they want to protect. For example a person may be embarrassed if it were known that they had been at a particular address and they would not want that disclosed. That suggests that this information is ‘personal information’. A test may be would they object if it was broadcast – ‘Bill Smith was collected from his home’ may not be an issue, but ‘Bill Smith was collected from an address that can be identified as a ‘house of ill-repute’’ would be embarrassing. When you apply that test it seems to me that the address from where the patient was collected (regardless of whether it was their home or a ‘house of ill-repute’) and the time would constitute ‘personal information’.
The Health Care Act 2008 (SA) s 93 says that a person ‘engaged or formerly engaged’ with the SAAS ‘must not disclose personal information relating to a person’ that was obtained while the person was with SAAS except where they are ‘authorised or required to disclose that information’ by the ambulance service.
Information may also be disclosed where the disclosure is ‘required or authorised by or under law’ (s 93(3)(a)) or where the disclosure is necessary ‘to lessen or prevent a serious threat to the life, health or safety of a person’ (s 93(3)(e)). Note to under the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth) private information may be disclosed where the ‘disclosure is necessary to lessen or prevent a serious threat to the life, health or safety of any individual, or to public health or safety’ (s 16A). These provisions would be relevant if there had been an assault and there was fear of ongoing violence, eg in a situation of domestic violence, but not in a case of a ‘one off’ assault where there is no reason to think there is an ongoing threat.
Just because police ask for information it does not mean that it is required by law, because people are not required to answer police questions. If police can produce a search warrant then they can compel the production of documents such as a clinical record and obtain whatever information they want that way. Equally if the police can assure the ambulance officers that the information is required ‘to lessen or prevent a serious threat to the life, health or safety of a person’ then it may be disclosed. If the police can point to some other lawful authority to demand an answer – that is they can say ‘you are required by section … of the … Act to answer this question’ then the information can be disclosed. In other circumstances, particularly if the patient has indicated that they don’t want the information disclosed then that should be honoured. If for example police ask the patient what happened, where were they etc and the patient/victim refuses to answer those questions, the paramedics should not then answer the same questions when it is clear that the patient wants to protect their confidentiality.
If there is no immediate threat of future violence then the police can take it up with SAAS management and either point to the relevant lawful authority or obtain a search warrant.
For a related discussion Discovering crime during an emergency response (July 19, 2016).