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Gunshot law, 'extremely invasive' says privacy commissioner
Worries mandatory reporting of gunshot and stabbing wounds may stop victims of domestic violence from seeking help

Mark Rendell
Northern News Services
Published Friday, August 15, 2014

Starting today, all gunshot wounds as well as stabbing wounds that are not self-inflicted must be reported by health professionals to the RCMP.

The Gunshot and Stab Wound Mandatory Disclosure Act, passed by the NWT legislative assembly last fall, is meant to help police investigate violent attacks in a timely manner and protect public safety if an attacker remains at large.

Some critics, however, fear that the mandatory reporting of health information will harm the relationship of trust between doctors and patients and may prevent victims, especially those of domestic abuse, from seeking medical care.

The act requires doctors, nurses paramedics and other health care workers to report three things: the victim's name, whether it is a gunshot or a stabbing wound and where they are being treated.

"It's really a notification," said Insp. Adrien Barrieau, manager of policing and crime prevention with the GNWT.

"We need timely information," he said. "Most of the time, when an incident happens police find out when it's a day or two late and a lot of the evidence can disappear."

The act gives police bare minimum access - no personal information beyond the victim's name and no medical information beyond the existence of the wound will be given to police without a warrant.

"For any other information, we still have to go through the usual police procedures so it's not carte blanche for police to open the books and get everything."

Despite the relatively short list of items doctors are required to disclose, Elaine Keenan Bengts, information and privacy commissioner for The NWT, calls the legislation "extremely privacy invasive."

"Most of the concerns are with the patient and doctor privacy relationship," she said. "If I'm going to the doctor, I always would like to think that what I say to my doctor and what my doctor says to me, is private. It may prevent people from actually seeking the medical attention they need."

This is especially true, she said, of victims of domestic abuse who may forgo medical attention for fear that reports to the police will lead to further violence from their partners.

"Within the Northwest Territories, we don't have a lot of gunshot wounds," she said, "but we have a lot more stabbings arising out of domestic abuse."

"This person has to go back and live at home again," she said. "Without this legislation, they have plausible deniability."

She worries that domestic abuse victims that do show up with stab wounds will give incorrect accounts of the injuries so they will be deemed self-inflicted and therefore not mandatory to report.

"Doctors need to know what's going on to treat it," she said.

Heather Chang, access to information and protection of privacy commissioner at Stanton Territorial Hospital, said the hospital is taking steps to ensure the legislation doesn't effect patient care.

"It will be reported but the physician doesn't have to spend the time on the phone," she said.

When someone comes in with a gunshot or stabbing wound, health care providers will report to Chang or another administrator who will call police.

"Our key is the medical care of the patients," she said.

"I don't think anyone is going to put their head in the sand and say there won't be a chilling effect (on people reporting their own injuries)," she said.

"There may or may not be. It's a wait and see thing," she said. "It will be interesting on Aug. 15 of next year to see if there's been much of an effect."

She said there is some evidence that the law's impact won't be too dramatic.

According to a 2009 survey of 267 physicians in Ontario, "since the passage of (Ontario's mandatory reporting legislation), only six (four per cent) of (emergency physicians) who had seen a (gun shot wound) that had been reported to the police felt that the law had a negative impact on the patient-physician relationship."

Keenan Bengts, however, said she's not convinced the legislation is even necessary.

"I haven't seen any evidence, no studies done, to suggest that without the legislation crimes are going unsolved," she said. "There's no evidence of direct linkage between mandatory reporting and reduction of violent crime."

Current legislation, she said, already allows doctors to give information to police if they think there's immediate concern to public safety. Making reporting mandatory simply takes the discretion away from doctors.

"There have been all sorts of concerns expressed throughout the country where this legislation has been passed," she said.

Similar legislation, which exists in almost every other province and territory, has been heavily criticized by her counterparts in other jurisdictions, she said.

And there are number of states in the U.S., she said, that are striking down similar laws.

"They're finding that people are avoiding the medical attention they need or are telling stories are outlandishly crazy," she said.

Barrieau said the legislation wasn't enacted in response to increase in stabbings and gunshots nor a noticeable difficulty the RCMP is having getting information.

"It's not a reaction to an incident," he said. "It's more a matter of following best practices already in place in other jurisdictions.

Keenan Bengts responded that what's best practice for police, "may not always be best for the victim."

"I have nothing against police," she said. "They're going to take what they can get to make their job easier. Does that make it right? No."

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