Health professionals, whether working in places of detention, called to visit a police station or other place of detention, or working in national health services, may well be presented with detainees to examine in the presence of security forces. The reasons for such examination may include a statutory initial medical examination upon arrival in a place of detention, complaint of illness or ill-treatment by a detainee, or routine referral for medical treatment. When faced with a detainee, the health professional must apply their usual ethical principles in any assessment and treatment. The detainee must give informed consent to any examination, procedure or treatment, and this should include an explanation of who will have access to any findings, and how these findings may be used. Informed consent requires that the consenting individual:
- Is mentally competent
- Receives full disclosure of information, i.e. risks vs. benefits
- Understands the information provided
- Gives his/her consent voluntarily
- Provides authorisation for his/her consent
Two further points of particular importance in the examination of detainees must be highlighted: the maintenance of medical confidentiality and the use of restraints (such as handcuffs) on detainees. Medical ethics dictates that consultations and the information gained therein should be confidential between the doctor and the patient. In the case of prisoners, the security forces (police, military or prison guards) will often maintain that they must remain present during any consultation, the most common reason being that it is for the protection of the health professionals. In some circumstances, the security personnel might insist that the detainee remain in restraints (handcuffs, ankle-cuffs) and even with a hood or blindfold during the consultation. Thus there is an immediate conflict between security and medical concerns.
As stated above, health professionals have a duty to observe their usual ethical practise in their treatment of detainees. In brief, there can be no blanket rule that dictates that all detainees are dangerous and merit, in all circumstances, the presence of security personnel and/or restraints. If escape is an issue, health professionals can conduct consultations with the security personnel outside the door, or as a less acceptable alternative, with the door open and the personnel out of range of hearing. Further, security concerns can be addressed by conducting the consultation in a room that has only one entrance, and either no windows or barred windows.
The routine use of restraints during medical consultation or treatment is also contrary to medical ethics and international standards on treatment of prisoners. Health professionals must not accept such practises. Restraints not only interfere with the proper diagnosis, management and treatment of patients, but they also run contrary to the inherent dignity of all human beings. The only possible acceptable justification for use of restraints is as a last resort when there is substantiated reason to believe that this particular detainee presents an immediate and current violent threat to himself or others. Health professionals can and should question the use of restraints if they have reason to doubt such a risk exists. In the exceptional circumstances that restraints are used, they should be as minimal as possible.
The use of hoods or blindfolds during any contact between a detainee and health professionals is absolutely unacceptable under any circumstances. The use of hoods or blindfolds has in itself been found to be a form of ill-treatment. In the health setting hoods or blindfolds not only impair any meaningful contact with the patient, they also prevent the identification of any health professionals and may thus add to a perception of impunity in any cases of ill-treatment.