The collision of medical privacy laws and celebrity

As a 2002 graduate of Butler University, I still follow Butler’s men’s basketball team closely just like many Butler alumni. I usually catch a game or two every season at Hinkle Fieldhouse. Of course, this sequence from the 2010 NCAA National Championship Game will be etched painfully into our memories forever.

In 2013 after Coach Brad Stevens left Butler to coach the Boston Celtics, one of my contemporaries on campus, Brandon Miller (who also played basketball for Butler from 1999 until 2003 when he graduated) was named head coach.

The 2013-14 season was a rough one for my Bulldogs for a number of reasons, but the 2014-15 season brought new hope to the team. With one season under Miller and one season in the Big East under the team’s belt as well as the return of Roosevelt Jones from injury…things were looking up. That is, until the university announced last week that Coach Miller was taking a medical leave of absence.

The university did not and legally could not disclose the reason for his absence, and Coach Miller isn’t talking either.

“Brandon Miller has requested a leave of absence for medical reasons, which the University has granted. We are not in a position to further elaborate and we ask that everyone respect Brandon’s privacy.”

Barry Collier, Athletic Director, Butler University

It’s natural to be curious about things like this, and when the person is a public figure like Coach Miller, the level of curiosity is ramped up a notch. But just because the public is curious doesn’t mean we have a right to know. So it really surprised me when I read this in The Indianapolis Star:

I want to emphasize this is just my opinion: Unless there is a legal reason not to do so, I think Brandon should be upfront about what he is dealing with, especially if he wants to return as coach.

Michael Pointer, reporter

Well, Michael, there are absolutely legal reasons not to do so. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) protects Coach Miller’s privacy, and the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) protects his job. Just because we have different laws for public figures about defamation, libel and slander doesn’t mean that our laws related to health care are different for them as well.

I would think Michael Pointer would know this better than most people. A few months ago, I was attending an open mic night at a local comedy club. Pointer took the stage and explained to the audience that he was in the midst of a medical leave from the Star — and that doing stand-up comedy was part of his (mental health) therapy. As a member of the audience, I certainly have no obligation to protect his privacy…if he really cared, he wouldn’t have gotten behind a microphone and told a room full of people. Still, since he was on medical leave, he would have had to go through a lot of paperwork about HIPAA and FMLA himself.

The other thing for Pointer to remember is that just because Coach Miller didn’t explain his situation to the general public doesn’t mean that he didn’t explain it privately to the university. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t.

The clinical importance of privacy

I’m not saying that this is what is happening with Coach Miller, because I honestly don’t know what his health status is. But I do think mental health is the best example of why it’s important that we keep health information private for everyone, including public figures.

According to a 2001 report by the World Health Organization, one in four people worldwide has a mental or neurological disorder. And one of the biggest obstacles to treatment is the social stigma associated with these disorders. So, in order to encourage people to get treatment, guaranteeing confidentiality is paramount.

Mental health policies and programmes should promote the following rights: equality and non-discrimination; the right to privacy; individual autonomy; physical integrity; the right to information and participation; and freedom of religion, assembly and movement.

World Health Organization. Mental Health: New Understanding, New Hope, 2001 [emphasis added].

I have also worked as a journalist who always wanted to know the scoop, but I hope Pointer and the public will show Coach Miller the same respect that we showed to him during his very public medical leave of absence.