Thursday, August 22, 2019

The myth of the ‘positive’ drug test

THE greatest blunder a journalist can commit with regard to drug testing results is to report it prematurely and, when names are named, violate a person’s privacy… prematurely.

It might be surprising to those not familiar with the intricacies of drug testing science; however, not all drug test results are the same. There is what we call the “screening result,” which is usually the result of tests ordered by institutions for their employees. Obviously, screening is literally screening. The test merely screens the “possibility” that the employee being tested “could be” positive (not “really” positive) for drug substances in his or her blood.

The screening procedure follows a strict robust clinical laboratory diagnostic procedure through a protocol of confidentiality. It means that there is a “blinding” of the drug analyst from the identity of the person being tested. All that the analyst can and should see is the serial number of the test sample (without the person’s name).

Another protection of privacy is the confidentiality of the result of a screening test. And for good reason because a positive screening test does not reliably mean that the employee has drug substances in his or her body. The test used is subject to false positives, especially when the blood contains medications that react positively with the test reagents.

For this reason, the protocol dictates that the result of any drug test screening should not be released to anyone, including the public, because it is still subject to confirmation in an accredited confirmatory laboratory in Manila or in Cebu, if such laboratory already exists. Only a “confirmatory” result can validly, reliably declare that indeed the employee has a drug substance in his or her bloodstream.

Thus, it is a breach of protocol and ethics to release to the public a screening result before a confirmation is made. Consequently, reporting a “screening result” is also a breach of privacy and an issue in journalism ethics.

I am unsure if Cebu Provincial Anti-Drugs Abuse Office chief Ivy Durano-Meca is authorized by protocol to release screening results to the media, or even mention if certain employees had a positive screening test. That action is a clear breach of sound diagnostic protocol in relation to drug testing.

It should be ethically safer to say, “We still need to confirm any results of this batch’s screening tests before we can release information of the outcome,” instead of saying, “we have a casual employee with a positive drug screening result.”

Respect for privacy should be protected. Even an insinuation, by public disclosure, that the employee’s positive screening test is “really” positive is unfair to the employee when that person is not a drug user.

Government officers should be more sensitive with these ethical issues instead.
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