Fundamental questions about patient confidentiality, consent, the HSE’s use of power as an employer and data protection remain to be answered by the Department of Health.

The appearance of the General Secretary of the Department of Health, Robert Watt, at the Oireachtas Health Committee has raised more questions than answers, according to Social Democrats Health Spokesperson Róisín Shortall.

Mr Watt appeared at the Committee to vigorously deny allegations, made in an RTE Prime Time Investigates Programme, that the Department of Health compiled dossiers on children with special educational needs, whose families had launched legal action against the State.

Deputy Shortall stated:

“A very concerning element of the RTE report was the revelation that the Department had a template letter, which were routinely sent to health and education services, seeking information about individual children.

“That letter contained an express instruction that neither families, nor their legal representatives, should be informed about these requests for information.

“I raised this template letter with Mr Watt at this morning’s Committee meeting and he stated, “it should have been worded better”.

“Mr Watt then proceeded to explain that these letters went to HSE case managers and the information sought, a service update, was not sensitive. In those circumstances, he said, the letter intended to convey that neither parents nor solicitors were required to be contacted about the information gathering.

“I find this explanation very odd. Mr Watt is essentially saying that the plain meaning of the words in the template, that parents and solicitors should not be informed about Department of Health requests for information, is a matter of debate.

“Why was the Department of Health so determined that neither the families nor their solicitors would learn that the Department was still compiling information – even if, as Mr Watt claims, the information sought was benign.

“Is it that, if families and their solicitors knew the Department was compiling information, it would alert them to the fact that it was still working, in the background, on their legal cases, which were long dormant?

“Further, given Mr Watt himself has stated the letter was badly phrased and open to confusion, how does he know that medical or educational professionals, who received this letter, were not similarly confused and, therefore, divulged sensitive information in breach of their professional code of ethics or GDPR obligations?

“The letter, as worded, raises fundamental questions about patient confidentiality, consent, the HSE’s use of power as an employer and data protection – questions that remain to be answered by the Department of Health.

“We need to know how long this template letter was in existence; how many people it was sent to; the nature of their professional relationship with these families; the precise nature of the information that was collected on foot of this letter and whether the template was only altered after the RTE Prime Time Investigates programme.

“The families at the heart of this investigation – and families all around the country who have children with special educational needs – need to be able to trust that the Department of Health has the best interests of their children at heart and is not engaged in a sinister practice of collating secret dossiers on those who launch legal proceedings against it.

5 May, 2021


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