The Freedom Of Information (FOI) Act has ushered in a new era of transparency, which has important consequences for the healthcare industry. These were examined at a seminar entitled "The Freedom Of Information Act And Healthcare Agencies", hosted by A&L Goodbody Solicitors on Thursday 10th February 2000.

Under the FOI Act, a range of organisations are designated 'Public Bodies'. This means that for example, information relating to clinical trials and other matters could be accessed by the general public or other interested parties.

Suppliers of commercial goods and services to the public health system, such as pharmaceutical companies and medical equipment manufacturers, need to be aware that documentation, supplied by them to these public bodies, is also subject to production to the general public. Commercial information relating to drug and clinical trials, pricing strategies, or other issues may also be subject to requests for production.

Chairperson of the seminar, Margaret Muldowney, Director of the Healthcare Unit at A&L Goodbody Solicitors, warned delegates: "If you deal with Irish healthcare agencies, you must bear in mind that information, which you might regard as private and confidential to your organisation, may be released to the general public."

Commenting on the implications of the Act, Margaret Muldowney said: "Transparency will hopefully give members of the public a renewed confidence about decision-making in the healthcare sector, but will change the environment for commercial organisations carrying out business with healthcare agencies.

"Although the Act has only been in operation for a short time, we have already seen a number of cases where information supplied to a public body by a private organisation, which would previously have been regarded as private, has been released. The FOI Act empowers the public and as a consequence, we expect to see an increase in requests in the healthcare sector."

Speaking at the seminar, the Information Commissioner, Kevin Murphy said: "The purpose of the Act is to lay open the workings of public bodies to public scrutiny rather than to open the private business affairs of individuals or companies to scrutiny by competitors. Achieving transparency in relation to the workings of public bodies facilitates accountability for propriety, fairness and value for money."

"Public bodies have a responsibility to inform the public to the greatest extent possible. I believe a proactive policy of releasing information, without the need for formal FOI requests, will lead to an enhancement of the legitimacy of the organisation and improvement in the quality of its services," Kevin Murphy concluded.

Healthcare agencies which come under the ambit of the FOI Act include:

  • The Department Of Health And Children
  • The Irish Medicines Board
  • Voluntary hospitals
  • Healthboards
  • Healthboard hospitals
  • An Comhairle Na nOspideal
  • The Blood Transfusion Service Board

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