March 31, 2015 / 6:15 PM / 3 years ago

Germanwings crash triggers debate on confidentiality taboo

BERLIN (Reuters) - Calls to relax Germany’s strict doctor-patient confidentiality law after a Germanwings plane crash last week have touched a nerve in a country obsessed about privacy because of its authoritarian past.

A debate on the law began after reports that Andreas Lubitz, the co-pilot suspected of flying the Airbus A320 into a French mountain and killing all 150 people on board, had hidden sensitive information about his health from the airline.

German prosecutors say Lubitz had been treated in the past for suicidal tendencies and also suffered bouts of depression. Police searching his apartment found he was given a doctor’s sick leave note for the day the crash occurred.

Dirk Fischer, a senior member of parliament in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives, told the Rheinische Post newspaper the confidentiality rules should be relaxed if the lives of others could be put in jeopardy.

But medical and aviation associations rejected those calls on Tuesday, arguing the laws were a “precious commodity” that should not be tampered with.

“Such measures won’t prevent accidents from happening in the future. Instead it will only lead to affected patients not seeking out treatment, so as to prevent information being passed on to their employer,” the German Federation of Internists said.

Doctors already have authority to break the confidentiality vows if they feel their patient puts others at risk, said Frank Ulrich Montgomery, head of the Federal Chamber of Physicians.

German cabin crew and pilot associations also warned against hasty moves that could be detrimental for air safety.

Privacy is fiercely guarded in Germany, a reaction to the mass surveillance carried out by the Gestapo in the Nazi era and the Stasi in post-war communist East Germany.

Concerns have been heightened by revelations from former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden that the U.S. National Security Agency snooped on its allies, including Merkel.

Under German law, employers cannot access employees’ medical records and sick notes excusing a person from work do not specify their medical condition.

Pilots in Germany are required to inform examiners at their annual medical checks of any relevant health issues.

In Britain, examiners at pilots’ regular medical checks can request records from other doctors if they need them.

In the United States, laws on whether mental health providers can report that a patient poses an immediate threat of harm to self or others vary by state.

In states that require health professionals to disclose information about patients that pose a risk to others, the medical professional must inform law enforcement authorities.

Reporting by Caroline Copley and Victoria Bryan in Berlin, Sharon Begley in New York and Paul Sandle in London; Editing by Erik Kirschbaum and Tom Heneghan

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