What is Medical Confidentiality?

G. Wiesen

Medical confidentiality is the practice within the medical profession by doctors and other health care providers to not reveal private or sensitive information about a patient to other people. This is typically a practice that is supported legally by statutes of a country or region as well as an ethical obligation that many doctors see as an essential aspect of health care professionalism. There are a number of exceptions that can be made to medical confidentiality in certain situations, however. These typically include gaining permission from a patient to share the records, transferring records to other medical professionals, and sharing information to prevent injury or death.

Medical professionals are expected to keep patient information and records confidential.
Medical professionals are expected to keep patient information and records confidential.

Sometimes referred to as doctor-patient privilege, medical confidentiality is one of the most common and well-known forms of legal confidentiality. Confidentiality typically refers to situations in which one person is privileged to sensitive information about another person, and this privilege is expected to be kept secret and private. Lawyers typically have similar confidentiality with clients, and many businesses often expect trade secrets to be confidential with employees and often enforce such policies through nondisclosure agreements. No secondary agreements are necessary to enforce or establish medical confidentiality, however; it is simply assumed to be effective at any time in which a patient is discussing medical matters with a health care professional.

Information between doctors and patients is protected by privacy laws.
Information between doctors and patients is protected by privacy laws.

Most practicing doctors, nurses, and other professionals in the medical industry consider medical confidentiality to be a sacrosanct aspect of their profession. It is typically seen as an ethical obligation that medical professionals have to their patients. Such confidentiality is fairly essential in order for patients to feel they can be honest with their doctors and receive proper care.

Medical confidentiality is often referred to as the doctor-patient privilege.
Medical confidentiality is often referred to as the doctor-patient privilege.

Many countries also have laws that support and enforce medical confidentiality. Doctors and other health care professionals who violate this privilege may find themselves open to civil lawsuits and professional censure. Doctors can be fined and potentially lose their licenses to practice medicine if such violations are proven against them.

Medical records contain confidential information about a patient's health and medical treatment history.
Medical records contain confidential information about a patient's health and medical treatment history.

There are certain exceptions to medical confidentiality, however, that allow a doctor to reveal private information about a patient. This can be done whenever a patient knowingly waives his or her right to confidentiality, often by signing a waiver or similar form. Doctors can also typically share information about a patient with other doctors who are seeing that patient, either through conversation or by a transfer of records. Medical confidentiality can also usually be broken in situations in which a health care professional believes that a patient may pose a serious threat to himself or herself, or to others, and in many countries a doctor is legally obligated to notify law enforcement of a serious threat of which he or she is aware.

Many patients are concerned about their confidentiality due to increased use of technology to access and maintain medical records.
Many patients are concerned about their confidentiality due to increased use of technology to access and maintain medical records.
The consequences for violating medical privacy laws can be severe.
The consequences for violating medical privacy laws can be severe.

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