This week saw the engagement of some 700 contact tracers, whose job it is to trace the people who have been in contact with someone infected with Covid-19, so they can be tested in turn and their own contacts traced if they test positive.
However Tom Goffin, a specialist in the laws surrounding health-care, has warned that physicians who share confidential information on their patients – even with official contact tracers – could become legally liable.
The tracers are part of the three-part process usually put into action in response to an epidemic: test, trace, isolate. Test people for the disease; if they test positive, trace people they have been in contact with during the infectious period; isolate the original patient and any of their contacts who also test positive.
The response to the coronavirus has been somewhat different. Because it is a new virus, governments found themselves unable to provide enough tests, and no contact tracing infrastructure was available.
That shortfall is now on the way to being remedied, but the country still lacks a legal framework for the sharing of confidential patient information, Goffin said.
In a royal decree published on May 4, the government gave its health information agency Sciensano the job of compiling a database of information on patients with Covid-19 and their contacts. The decree sets a limit of 21 days during which that information may be retained in the database, after which it can only be used for epidemiological purposes after being anonymised.
But the decree does not deal with the problem faced by a doctor who passes on confidential information on a patient, Goffin argues.
“Only under certain conditions can doctors deviate from their professional confidentiality and share information about their patients,” Goffin writes in an article in the professional journal Juristenkrant.
“The Flemish Parliament must urgently work to make it obligatory for doctors to report, or to provide a legal authorisation to ensure that doctors or laboratory technicians are allowed to pass on the details of a corona patient to Sciensano. If a corona patient disagrees that his data is being shared, he can now theoretically file a complaint because the doctor has breached his professional confidentiality.”
The Brussels Times