What is Patient Confidentiality?

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  • Written By: G. Wiesen
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 16 February 2020
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Patient confidentiality is an aspect of the relationship between a doctor and a patient that dictates that any information given by a patient or discovered through medical testing is private. This information cannot be disclosed to third parties outside of the doctor and patient, unless the patient specifically allows the information to be released. There are a few exceptions to this, however, such as information that may relate to an imminent threat to the patient or others. Patient confidentiality is both an ethical obligation accepted by doctors and a legal issue protected by a number of laws in various countries, states, and provinces.

Also referred to as doctor-patient privilege, patient confidentiality covers any information relayed by a patient to his or her doctor, as well as information gained through medical testing. This can include prior medical history, such as medications or drugs taken, as well as illnesses a person may have had or may still have. Any medical conditions discovered through testing are also covered by patient confidentiality and remain private unless the patient authorizes the information to be released in a specific or general way.


Patient confidentiality can be waived by a patient, a legal guardian of a minor, or someone given power of attorney by a patient. The way this confidentiality is waived and how the information is released is typically governed by local statutes. In some areas the information is only released to a single agency and only certain aspects of it are released, while in other regions it may be released in its entirety to many other medical groups. These can include insurance companies, other medical professionals, and hospitals.

Doctors are allowed to break patient confidentiality in certain specific and extraordinary circumstances. These typically involve a risk to the patient or to others that the doctor perceives as real and imminent. This can include a patient who threatens to harm himself or others, as well as someone who may have a dangerous and highly communicable disease. In these circumstances, the doctor will usually have a legal obligation to inform law enforcement authorities and similar organizations. There is also typically implied consent by a patient to release medical information to any hospital or doctor a patient goes to see to ensure information is properly conveyed between health care providers.

Other instances in which patient confidentiality is breached by a doctor, however, can incur serious legal penalties for the doctor. Many countries allow a patient to bring a lawsuit against a doctor or hospital that breaks patient confidentiality and releases unauthorized information to a third party. In some areas, doctors can even lose their license to practice medicine or face other serious consequences for breaking this confidentiality.


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Post 3

@Mor - The problem with this is that you do have to draw a line somewhere. And that somewhere is fairly clearly defined legally in most cases.

If that legal protection didn't exist, there is a good chance that many people who need treatment wouldn't dare go to get it for fear that they will be arrested or ridiculed. This is a human rights issue and frankly I think to some extent the confidentiality of a patient should be treated as sacred and only broken under dire circumstances.

Post 2

@pastanaga - That's a very difficult line to draw though, because in a lot of cases doctors have no other way to research illness without testing patients. The intentions of the doctor should be made clear and explained to the patient, I agree with that. And I don't know how they should handle patient confidentiality law when it comes to cell lines and similar things.

I mean, if someone turned out to have a cure for cancer in their blood, should they be allowed to keep that to themselves? What about if they have AIDS and the doctor knows they intend to deliberately infect people? This is a murky issue. Patient doctor confidentiality is very important, but I don't think it should be treated as sacred.

Post 1

I just want to point out that one of the things that has happened in the past is that patients will sign something before being given tests that states that the doctor basically owns the results.

Technically, this isn't going to break patient confidentiality, because the doctor isn't going to reveal who the patient is, but there have definitely been cases in the past where the doctor has taken the results of a test and used them in ways that come close to crossing the line.

The most famous case of this, of course, is the HeLa cells that came from a patient who was tested for cancer. Even though the patient's name wasn't revealed (at least at first) the

cells were developed as an immortal line and sent all over the world for use in research.

I guess what I'm saying is that you can't take for granted that your body or cells are confidential. Your name might be, but that's about it.

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