Trigger warning: Missing persons investigation and reference to death
In life, all you have is yourself. You have your body, your health, and your mind. That belongs to you. Now imagine, this is shared. Not in a romanticised and aesthetic sense, with a lover or soul mate. I mean imagine being stripped naked in front of the nation, the world. Imagine every appointment, ailment, medication, mental health issue, operation, procedure spilling out for everyone to see. Your medical privacy belongs to you. But once shared, you no longer have yourself, everyone does. In the UK, health and care records are considered confidential, and to access someone else’ requires a procedure of authorisation or legal authority. Breaching this patient data privacy can lead to identity theft, discrimination as well as reputational damage, leaving people in extremely vulnerable positions. What happens when this is breached by the people who are supposed to protect us most – the police.
On the 27th of January, British woman Nicola Bulley disappeared in broad daylight whilst walking her dog. Two weeks into the search for Nicola, the police categorise Nicola as ‘high-risk’ and ‘vulnerable’ justifying these labels due to her suffering with her menopause and her prescription for HRT. Villainising the female hormone cycle and breaching her autonomy, the police illicitly exposed her medical privacy.
In the UK, the government have created a legal framework to protect patient data. This includes the Data Protection Act in 2018, the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) into law, and the Common Law Duty of Confidentiality (CLDC). This framework is considered unassailable and indisputable, but not to the Police. For the Police to access any medical history of an individual, requires consent from the person or it must be sufficiently in the public interest to grant the disclosure. Conditions that were not met within Nicola Bulley’s case and have provoked public concern and distress.
John Edwards from the Information Commissioner’s office said, ‘Police can disclose information to protect the public and investigate crime, but they would need to be able to demonstrate such disclosure was necessary.’
I’m writing to say that this disclosure was not necessary.
It is estimated that a third of the entire UK female population are currently peri or menopausal. The majority of these thirteen million people are currently suffering with brain fog, hot flushes, night sweats, difficulty sleeping, low mood, anxiety, reduced sex drive. These women are all around us. They are teachers, they are mothers, they are doctors, they are high functioning and successful people who are valued and needed within our society, regardless of their hormonal status. If thirteen million women disappeared from the surface of the UK, would the excuse of ‘they were going through menopause’ suffice the loss, grief and confusion of the rest of the population? No. As a nation we would be at a huge disadvantage without each and every one of those thirteen million women, including Nicola Bulley.
By exposing her menopausal status at a crucial moment of her missing persons investigation fuels the misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding women’s health and in particular menopause. The police releasing her medical history suggests that the public need to be ‘protected’ from her and her menopausal state is what categorises her as ‘high risk’. In the last five years, efforts have been made relentlessly by individuals to dispel the stereotypes that women who are on hormone replacement therapy (HRT), and those who are going through menopause, are mentally unstable and erratic in their behaviour. A progression severely undermined by the police in Nicola Bulley’s case, that could drastically impact the attitudes of the public towards looking for her.
Confidentiality saves lives.
Fifty-four days later and Nicola Bulley’s body has been found but her disappearance remains unexplained, alongside the actions of Lancashire police. This tragic incident highlights the urgent need to address societal attitudes and policing practices that fail to protect women’s safety, after a recent review into the Metropolitan police concludes the force as institutionally racist, misogynistic, and homophobic. Ms. Bulley was not exhibiting any erratic or unstable behaviour when she went on a routine walk with her dog after dropping her children off at school. It is unacceptable that our societal norms and policing system fail to provide equal attention and care to all members of society. For example, it is unlikely that personal medical information of a man, such as erectile dysfunction, would be brought into the public domain, potentially hindering efforts to locate him if he were to go missing. It is imperative that changes are made to ensure equal treatment and protection for all individuals, regardless of gender or medical status.