Thursday, September 11, 2008

A snoop too far

An editorial from today's edition of The Chronicle Herald:
MENTAL HEALTH advocates – and our readers, too, in a flood of online comments – say the provincial government has no business asking everyone to disclose their entire mental health history when they fill out the medical section of a driver’s licence renewal application every five years.

They are absolutely right. When the application’s medical declaration was quietly changed last spring, the new wording of some questions was far too broad and intrusive on health privacy, going beyond any reasonable effort to determine whether an applicant has a current medical condition that could impair driving.

So it was good to see Service Nova Scotia Minister Jamie Muir heed the public outcry on Wednesday. Mr. Muir reinstated the old language, which simply asks drivers if they have had a change in health that could affect their driving.

The questions on medical history touched a number of physical disorders, too, but the offensive wording asked "have you had" a pyschiatric or psychological condition.

Any reasonable person would read this as fishing for any sort of mental health counselling or treatment – whether for anxiety or stress or depression or personality disorders – experienced at any time in life. That sweeps in a vast range of things few people have not experienced at some time or other.

But if you answered yes, the registry could order you to take the standard medical examination required for drivers with chauffeur’s or commercial licences and for those whose medical fitness to drive has been questioned by their doctor or police. The doctor’s report would be reviewable by registry staff and could be referred to a medical committee to determine your fitness to drive.

This scattershot approach had the potential to burden GPs, the health system and individuals with a lot of unnecessary medical exams and reports. It would create another government record where personal health information must be secured – which is one more avenue for screw-ups and unintended disclosure. It could even discourage people from getting counselling or treatment – out of concern that anything to do with mental health could create a problem with licence renewal.

Registrar of Motor Vehicles Paul Arsenault defended the new practice Tuesday, saying the department has a public-safety interest in conditions like anxiety and depression because patients may be taking medication that affects their ability to drive.

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