On 23rd March 2021, news broke out that Malta’s Minister of Education, Justyne Caruana, was hospitalized at Mater Dei Hospital. In the preceding days, she had been caught up in a debacle over the payment of a foreign footballer to reform sports curricula in government schools. Rumours circulated that this was a stunt meant to distract from the controversy or that maybe her health suffered as a consequence of it.
On 24th March 2021, Lovin Malta released an article which stated that the reason the minister was hospitalized was due to an overdose of tranquilizers. Tranquilizers are used to treat a variety of mental health conditions, ranging from anxiety to schizophrenia. Many have condemned Lovin Malta for releasing this information, due to the sensitive nature of the information. Others have praised it saying that it is necessary information for the country to know if the Minister is capable of leading them. Lovin Malta themselves have released an article justifying their actions, stating that the state has the right to know if such a powerful person is fit to lead them, especially at such a critical time.
This incident has highlighted that there is a flaw in our medical system. The Patient’s Charter of Rights published in 2016 states that ‘personal health information [should be] stored and processed in accordance with Art. 257 of the Criminal Code and the Data Protection Act’. This means that any medical information within the hospital cannot be released without the patient’s consent. For Lovin Malta to have obtained this information must mean that someone in the hospital has blatantly broken the law.
This is not the first incident which has happened. Last year, there were several reports of families which were shunned by their community after they found out that they had contracted COVID-19. This indicates that medical information is accessible by many hospital personnel which may not be involved directly in a patient’s healthcare. Even if they are directly involved, all healthcare workers are bound by confidentiality.
It begs the question, how serious is the hospital about medical privacy? Obviously, more than one doctor may need access to a patient’s details in order to give a holistic treatment. The only time where a patient’s personal details may be disclosed publicly is if it will benefit the public e.g. publication of a patient’s injuries sustained during a crime. Even in such cases, the harm of giving out this information must be weighed against the possible harm that may arise by not disclosing this patient’s details.
Tranquilizers, however, do not merit such public interest. They are a very widely used medication, which if taken correctly can help people function as normal. Unfortunately, there is still quite a lot of stigma about psychiatric medication and this can affect how a patient’s peers think about them. Leaks like this need to be taken more seriously and investigated thoroughly. If one of the most powerful people in the country is not afforded her privacy, how can the man on the street be expected to?
The stigma of illness has decreased but unfortunately is still a persistent one. Patients already have their medical conditions to worry about, they should not have to worry about being judged or gossiped about. Fortunately, patient’s rights have come a long way in the last century. There are always going to be flaws and it is the hospital’s duty to do the best it can.