Hong Kong police officers have already been receiving heavy criticism for their use of excessive force to disperse protesters during the mass protests on June 12. On that day, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers, mostly students, gathered outside their government offices to demand the scrapping of a controversial extradition bill that was viewed by many as an encroachment on the city’s freedoms enshrined under the “one country, two systems” agreement with communist China.
Now, fresh attention is being given to police actions since June 12, particularly relating to officers seeking to obtain the medical information of injured protesters.
Police officers have been seen violating patient privacy, Wong Yam-hong, a medical sector committee member, told a press conference on June 23, reported the Hong Kong bureau of the Epoch Times. During the conference, a joint statement from 82 members of Hong Kong’s 1,200-member election committee was presented. The members represented leaders from Hong Kong’s medical, health services, and legal sectors.
Under the current system, Hong Kongers do not vote directly for their top leader, the chief executive. Rather, an 1,194-member election committee, made up of predominantly business and political elites known to be loyal to Beijing, votes for the top leader.
Among the 82 signatories were Dr. Leung Ka-lau, a surgeon who was a member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo) from 2008 to 2016, and Dr. Gabriel Choi Kin, former president of the Hong Kong Medical Association.
On June 12, peaceful protests descended into chaos at around 3 p.m. local time after some protesters attempted to break through police lines outside the LegCo building in Admiralty. After pushing back against those protesters, local police used tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and bean bags in an attempt to clear all protestors from the streets.
Police Commissioner Stephen Lo has since confirmed that 32 protesters were arrested on June 12. Some of these arrests were made at hospitals, Hong Kong media reported.
Climate of Fear
The joint statement criticized police officers for their action inside hospitals run by Hong Kong’s Hospital Authority, a statutory body under the governance of the Secretary for Food and Health. Police collected evidence, patrolled the inside of hospitals, and demanded patient information from hospital staff.
The joint statement also said that five protesters were arrested by the police while they were seeking treatment at hospitals—three were being treated at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, one at Kwong Wah Hospital and another at Yan Chai Hospital.
Wong revealed that in one case, police officers were found listening in on a conversation at a nursing station in one of the public hospitals, according to Hong Kong media radio broadcaster RTHK.
In attempting to get patient information, police officers were also said to have verbally threatened nursing staff.
Wong said that the police actions had created “a climate of fear,” deterring injured protesters from seeking medical assistance.
“In the future, if there are such mass conflicts happening again, there will be more and more of these patients refusing to get medical help—and this is indeed a public health care crisis in the making,” Wong said, according to RTHK.
He added that doctors and nurses should not turn over patient information as respecting the patient’s right to privacy is a principle that medical professionals should uphold. He said that patients could file complaints with either Hong Kong’s medical council or nursing council if they believed their right to privacy had been violated.
Hong Kong lawmaker Pierre Chan, who represents the healthcare sector, said he had obtained evidence that local police officers had been given backdoor access to patient information stored in the Hospital Authority’s database without the need for a password, according to a June 17 article by RTHK.
Patient information would include names, phone numbers, and government-issued identity card numbers.
Chan alleged that the backdoor had been designed by the head office of the Hospital Authority, the public broadcaster reported. He added that the medical staff treating the patients would not have been aware of the hidden access and only found out about it following the arrests.
“The doctors and nurses in the accident and emergency departments tried to find out why the patients attending A&E [accident and emergency] got caught. And we didn’t understand. And that’s why they tried to figure it out. And accidentally they found this link … found this backdoor,” Chan told the press conference.
BREAKING: Lawmaker confirms Hong Kong Hospital Authority has shared injured protesters’ information with police to facilitate arrests. The act is not only unconscionable and a breach of patient privacy, it’s also dangerous by discouraging the injured from seeking medical help. pic.twitter.com/1xAio2DtRs
— Jason Y. Ng (@jasonyng) June 17, 2019
Chan demanded that the Hong Kong authorities stop using the backdoor, while urging hospital staff not to specify in medical reports whether patients’ injuries could be protest-related.
The Hospital Authority denies Chan’s allegations, saying that it had not provided any patient information to the police with regards to the June 12 protests and would investigate whether information had been leaked by staff members. In a statement, the authority said that its data system could not be accessed by non-Hospital Authority personnel, according to the Hong Kong Free Press.
Lo also dismissed the Chan’s remarks, saying that the arrests were made using standard police approaches based on information obtained by officers stationed at public hospitals.
On June 12, a local paramedic service took to Facebook to express his helplessness when an injured protester he was treating was dragged out of his ambulance by a police officer in riot gear, according to Apple Daily.