Israeli Rights Groups: Universities Not Entitled to See Medical Records of Applicants

Data can include details about physical disabilities, learning disorders or diseases.

Rights groups are protesting what they say is the dissemination of prospective students' medical information to universities, arguing the practice is illegal and violates test takers' privacy.

They say the information is provided by the National Institute for Testing and Evaluation, which administers and supervises psychometric tests for university admission, and is provided if the prospective students received special testing accommodations.

The data, provided at the universities' request, can include details about physical disabilities, learning disorders or diseases.

"I don't tell anyone on the street I have diabetes," said one prospective student after discovering that the university she wants to attend had been sent her medical records. "I'm the one to decide who to give personal details to. How can someone in a university who hasn't even met me... already have my medical record?"

But the testing institute said in a statement that "the diagnosis results are given only to the examinee, who decides whether to show them to the university or not."

The diabetic test-taker said medical information should not be considered in the admissions process.

"It's not even relevant, the special accommodations are intended to provide me with an equal opportunity," she said. "I'm doing everything to function like every other person, so why should information that could harm my admission chances be accessible?"

The testing institute said test takers are informed that universities are entitled to receive medical information, but rights advocates said the prospective students cannot be construed as giving genuine informed consent.

"Every examinee who asks for special accommodations is informed in writing that the universities that receive his grades are entitled to receive information about the conditions in which the test was held and the reasons for them," the institute said.

But the examinee said this was unjust. "I had no option but to agree [to their terms]," she said. "This is the only organization in Israel that administers psychometric exams. That is unfair."

Haim Croitoru, a lawyer for the Society for Patients Rights in Israel, said the testing institute is infringing on the test takers' privacy.

The Protection of Privacy Law says it is illegal to use knowledge about a person's private matters or provide that information to anyone else, for any purpose other than the one for which it was disclosed, he said.

The institute said the clause dealing with the secrecy of medical information in the patients' rights law does not apply to it, saying the law is referring only to therapists and staff members of medical institutions.

"What is the sense of telling someone the medical information will be passed along?" asked Croitoru. "Does it mean her grade is worth less than someone who got the same grade in ordinary conditions? If so, then why were the special accommodations provided? They are giving the university a reason to deny someone's admission because of special accommodations he received."

Croitoru rejected the argument that the practice is acceptable because test takers are told in advance their medical details would be made available.

"There's no such thing. Such an act requires a positive, explicit consent, in writing," he said.

"Saying we notified you know is like me writing to someone, 'If you don't say no, you're bound in a 10-year contract with me,'" he said. "An explicit consent is explicit, not merely refraining from saying no. But the institute doesn't even give the test takers that option."

Croitoru said breaching the privacy law could be a criminal offense subject to five years in prison. "In this student's case, we warned them in advance the examinee did not want the information passed on," he said.

Dan Yakir, a lawyer for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said "when an examinee wants to take the test he is not in a position to refuse, so it is difficult to call his agreement a voluntary or knowing consent."

Disclosing the information "requires the examinee's approval, not merely letting him know and not by allowing the institute to make private medical information available in a sweeping, unlimited way," said Yakir. "The university must treat the test result equally, because that is what the special accommodation was intended for."

The testing institute said medical information is requested only a few times a year.

"Every year thousands of examinees are tested under special accommodations and in no case is any information about these conditions passed on automatically," it said in a statement. "Only in a few cases a year the university's exceptions committee may make sure if a certain examinee received accommodations or not, and for what medical reason or disability. This is in order to discuss the request of a candidate who says, for example, that his grade does not reflect his ability because he has a specific disability that prevented him from performing well in the test. To this day we have received no request to prevent making this information available to universities."