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Why Is Doctor-Patient Confidentiality So Important?

By: Anna Hinds BA (hons) - Updated: 10 Aug 2017 | comments*Discuss
 
Doctor Patient Confidentiality Privacy

Anything said within your doctor’s surgery should remain between the two of you. But when can a doctor rightfully disclose personal information? And what happens if a family member is diagnosed with a condition to which you could fall prey? We discuss the principles and dilemmas involved in doctor-patient confidentiality.

The Confidentiality Principle

Doctor-patient confidentiality is simple: as a patient you have a right to complete confidentiality. Anything said within the confines of a clinic surgery, or treatment room becomes protected under the Data Protection Act. This includes the fact that you were even there. Doctors have no right to supply anyone, even close family members, with your medical records or information. Mothers cannot obtain information on their children (without their consent) and doctors have no obligation to inform parents about teen pregnancies either. Privacy is an important issue.

“Many young people mistakenly believe that after they've been to the doctor for contraception, a sexually transmitted infection check or a pregnancy test, the first thing the doctor will do is phone their parents,” says Dr Rob Hicks (BBC). “This isn't true. The doctor can’t break her confidentiality.”

Doctor-patient confidentiality means that everything a patient says and asks of the doctor remains completely secret. Your diagnosis and prescription will, however, be noted on your medical records (see our article on Medical Records for more information).

In order to give you an effective treatment, your medical records might also be shared between healthcare professionals; but the information is usually non-identifiable, unless it is being passed to a specialist for consultation. It is assumed that you permit this type of disclosure, so patient consent isn’t explicitly sought. However, if you do not want your information shared with anybody at all, you have the right to request this: your doctor will make you aware of the implications (fewer treatment options, and so on)but respect your privacy.

Exceptions to the Rule

Patients are occasionally asked to consent to the disclosure of their information, but this would usually be for the purposes of research or case studies. For the sake of privacy, doctors must be clear about the nature and scope of the disclosure before patients sign their consent.

Without explicit consent, patient confidentiality can be breached for any of the following reasons:

  • If there are reasonable grounds (to protect the patient, their family, or community)

  • If it is considered democratically necessary (particularly where it might affect others)

  • If it is proportionate to the need.

These clauses are designed to protect people who could suffer from non-disclosure: for example, a doctor might inform a patient’s partner that (s)he has HIV, or (s)he might pass on information that prevents an unfit patient from driving. It would be necessary for any health professional to seek approval before making a decision on such disclosure.

The Health Secretary sparked debate recently when she expressed concern for the Muslim women in her constituency who were unable to trust their GPs. Patricia Hewitt told a magazine that Muslim women had spoken to her at length about the privacy problems with living in a close-knit community where nothing was secret. Although many Muslim and non-Muslim GPs leapt to defend the profession, it was acknowledged that close communities, made up of networks of extended families, often fail on privacy issues.

More About Doctor-Patient Confidentiality

Make sure you read our articles about Genetic Privacy, NHS Privacy, and Your Medical Records. The Department of Health’s Code of Practice for healthcare professionals and GPs is available online.

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[Add a Comment]
Spick- Your Question:
My doctor rang my boss without concent and due to this phone call I no longer have a job what do I do?

Our Response:
You could contact ACAS, who will inform you whether you may have any claim for unfair dismissal.
YourPrivacy - 10-Aug-17 @ 2:56 PM
My doctor rang my boss without concent and due to this phone call I no longer have a job what do I do?
Spick - 10-Aug-17 @ 5:02 AM
@Superman - you would have to complain directly to your GP practice about this.
SS - 1-Mar-17 @ 2:45 PM
Hi I am under a doctor for my medication and the resptionist rang my mother and said information that I didn't want her to know she rang my mother while she was working I am not happy about this can sum one point me in the right direction please has to who I would have to contact pleas kind regards
Superman - 1-Mar-17 @ 9:02 AM
My manager is seeing same consultant as me and is very nosey can she mention me and my condition to the consultant and will He tell her about me or is he not allowed to
Fatty patty - 12-Oct-16 @ 8:18 PM
I understand the receptionist need to prioritise the same day app.. how ever when it takes me nearlly three weeks to book appoitment, why do they need to know then..? When it takes the receptionist ten days after a blood test, to write a letter to say theres a concern with the reusults, have the test repeated again.., my condition could cause something serious with my health in ten days..why trust them with confidentiality??
Robbie - 22-Aug-16 @ 8:44 AM
mandiecb - Your Question:
Hi My partner went to the doctors for a check up, he told the doctor he smoked canabis most nights after work in his garden, she has referred him to a drug counseller, she has also to social services and the dvla. I have received a visit from the family support team and everything is fine with them. He attended his drug counselling session and did a drug test and tested negative as he has given up 5 weeks ago. We recived a letter today saying his licence has been revoked and he can't drive as of today, I'm fuming can the doctor divulge this information? My partner works all over the country and now will have to give up his job. I don't understand pls can someone advice me x

Our Response:
The DVLA has power under the Road Traffic Act 1988 to revoke driving licences on medical grounds such as epilepsy, mental disorder, fainting and in addition dependency on alcohol or illegal drugs. This may follow a conviction for a motoring offence, such as drink driving, but I'm afraid there doesn't have to be a motoring offence involved, it merely has to be that his GP feels he is unfit to drive and could be a danger on the roads. You can appeal against the revocation, however if this is refused then it would have to be taken through the Magistrates Court. I hope this helps.
YourPrivacy - 3-Sep-15 @ 10:28 AM
Hi My partner went to the doctors for a check up, he told the doctor he smoked canabis most nights after work in his garden, she has referred him to a drug counseller, she has also to social services and the dvla.I have received a visit from the family support team and everything is fine with them. He attended his drug counselling session and did a drug test and tested negative as he has given up 5 weeks ago.We recived a letter today saying his licence has been revoked and he can't drive as of today, I'm fuming can the doctor divulge this information? My partner works all over the country and now will have to give up his job.I don't understand pls can someone advice me x
mandiecb - 2-Sep-15 @ 6:48 PM
@KEW - as specified in the article, mothers cannot obtain information on their children (without their consent) as privacy is an important issue. Neither should personal information be divulged. Have you taken this up with the surgery directly? This is something you should do in the first instance, and you can at the same time ask what your options are under these circumstances.
YourPrivacy - 28-Apr-15 @ 12:28 PM
I am sure a practice nurse at my GP's surgery has broken patient confidentiality by ringing my mother about a smear test. I am 31 years old not underage. Does a nurse have the right to do this?
KEW - 25-Apr-15 @ 4:27 PM
I have club feet and i wanted to know if i can get rid of the condition on my medical records thanks
mason - 12-Dec-14 @ 11:58 AM
@Michy, how do you know they've looked at your medical records? How would they have access to your medical records?
Harry - 7-Aug-14 @ 11:27 AM
A member of my family has looked at my medical records without my consent this was a few years ago but think she has done it since how can I find out if she has done this and is this breaking confidentiality between doctor and patient?
Michy - 7-Aug-14 @ 8:13 AM
@wombat You must continue to take your medication. You need to contact the Practice Manager. If you do not wish to phone to speak to him/her do so in writing. Explain clearly the nature of your complaint and include your contact telephone number. Address the envelope and state clearly 'Complaint - Strictly Private & Confidential'. They have a duty of care and will respond to you. Jx
Janey - 5-Jul-12 @ 1:54 PM
Redbox you are an idiot. Do you realise how many patients waste emergency appointments just because they are so selfish as to think its ok to do so. People today are so stupid and selfish they have no idea how to spell the word, let alone understand what one REALLY is. Of course the receptionist will ask whats wrong! Or do you think they should have the GP answer all the phone calls so you can only discuss it with them? (You would all soon start moaning then when you cant see a GP because hes tied up on the phone talking to idiots like you).JIB. Another idiot. 0844 numbers are not premium numbers. They are Lo-Call numbers and are charged at LOCAL rates. FACT. If YOU CHOOSE to use a telephone provider OTHER than BT, who they THEMSELVES charge something other than a standard lo-call rate then I suggest YOU speak to your phone provider OR blame yourself for switching provider. Absolute bloody idiots. The surgery makes no money from what YOUR telephone provider charges! (what ever happened to nature selection, so many complete morons around that would otherwise have been wiped out due to their own stupidty. nanny state has a lot to answer for.)
TellitLikeItIs - 4-Jul-12 @ 2:32 PM
Receptionists brother works at an engineer business where I get work done and they tell me they know I got a crook back and they know I take morphine for it. the only way they could have that information is from the brother of receptionist who tried to stop me getting my meds I feel its not good enough im thinking about doing without a doctor after this, I dont trust them now. I also have type 1 diabetes and cant get it up for a root. lips have been flapping and its too late now im 47 years old and do have pain. on ordine 5 and mixtard 30/70 twice a day warning bells are ringing not the doctors phone. need some advice please
wombat - 24-Jun-12 @ 7:45 PM
@RedDalek - not a great situation but I think the test could have been far worse - a fasting glucose tolerance blood test wouldn't seem to be so controversial.Hopefully no harm will have been done there... Did you have a word with the manager there?Hopefully someone will get a minor rocket and it won't happen again.Good luck with the test!!
DrWho - 15-May-12 @ 9:17 AM
I am over 50 years old. I was not very happy when my mother told me not to forget my appointment at the clinic at our health centre at "11am Thursday morning for a fasting glucose tolerance test". The clinic had given my parents this information. I was livid! I did not want anyone to know I was having such tests and particularly so my parents because it would worry them. The disclosure was was partly accidental which I can forgive but not the giving of all details . My Mum & Dad were booking a blood test for my Dad "Fred Smith" , receptionist replies "I think one is already booked in that name" then " Oh no, it`s it`s not it`s for Barry Fred Smith for a fasting glucose toleranceblood test at 11 o clock Thursday Morning"
Red Dalek - 15-May-12 @ 8:07 AM
In response to JIB, I am a receptionist in a Gp surgery and we are bound by the data protection act. The reason we will not disclose ant details regarding a patient is: the patient may not want to inform family members of any doctor attendances. We can only disclose information if we have written consent from the patient,if we were to disclose without the patients knowledge we may lose our job and cause unnecessary distress to the intended parties.We definitely do not do this to cause conflict with a member of the patient family.
Kaz - 29-Jan-12 @ 7:37 PM
My doctor’s surgery won’t allow anyone to make an emergency appointment unless I tell the receptionist what is wrong with me. The receptionist will then say if I can see a doctor that day or next week depending on the assessment they make. If she is not sure or I am unhappy they will get a nurse to call back and then she will decide if and when I will get an appointment with my doctor. By the time I have seen him with my emergency I have disclosed my medical condition two timesThis cannot be correct; there is no confidentiality between me and my doctor. Are they breaking the law??RegardsBruce
redbox - 12-Oct-11 @ 5:41 PM
I told my Doctor something in private and he shared it with his staff! Is this acceptable?
tony - 29-Sep-11 @ 10:22 PM
I have just rung my doctor's surgery at my son's request for confirmation of his appointment tomorrow as he has to inform his work. It is difficult for him to call the surgery because he is on temporary contract and personal calls, breaks etc are restricted. The surgery refused to confirm his appointment with me because he is over 16 so he had to call their PREMIUM RATE NUMBER from his mobile to get confirmation himself. Is this standard procedure or just "jobsworth" to make life difficult. By the way I was waiting on the phone over 5 minutes on an 0844 number before the option I pressed was answered and being told this!
JIB - 11-Aug-11 @ 11:41 AM
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