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The Peninsula

A New Debate Begins Around Medical Information

Published April 14, 2020
Author: Korea View
Category: South Korea

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • As the central government shares data on COVID-19 cases with local authorities, there have been incidents of patients’ private information leaking to the public.
  • In response, a public petition was submitted to the National Human rights Commission of Korea to protest the usage of private medical data.
  • There is currently support behind the government’s usage of medical data – but investigations have revealed that there are competing legal precedents on this issue.

Implications: The government’s response to COVID-19 revealed an unsettled legal question on the sanctity of individual privacy during a public health crisis. Following the government’s failure to share vital information on how the MERS virus was spreading during the 2015 outbreak, the National Assembly passed new laws requiring authorities to disseminate relevant public health information to citizens and local authorities during crises. However, this statute left many unanswered questions for authorities. While the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has guidelines that protect the identities of individuals, there are concerns that private details could still be deduced from the published data. Moreover, each local government has been publishing different amounts of information, revealing that guidelines on publicly available medical data have not been sufficiently standardized.

ContextCompared to the United States, South Korea’s legal code appears to prioritize public transparency. Despite calls for more localized reporting, New York only lists COVID-19 cases by age bracket, gender and borough. Local health officials note that they cannot disclose how many cases are found in each city because of the nation’s strict medical privacy law (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act). Furthermore, health departments in the Bay Area make the case that releasing more granular data could heighten discrimination against certain communities where there might be clusters of cases.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Gordon Henning, Soojin Hwang, Hyungim Jang, and Ingyeong Park.

Picture from flickr user YJ-Lee 

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