The physician-patient privilege is a legal term that is associated with doctor-patient confidentiality. Essentially, this privilege means that doctors have the right to refuse to testify against their patients in a court of law. There are exceptions, and these are based on the particular laws of a state or country. People can also waive this privilege so that doctors can testify for them in trials.
The irascible Dr. House of the US Fox TV show House makes the contention frequently that “people always lie.” His point is that patients who lie to their doctors will always make treatment and diagnosis extremely difficult. If a person fears potential legal complications as a result of their honesty, he may not give a doctor all the information needed in order to effectively determine a course of treatment. When the physician-patient privilege is extended to doctors, patients may disclose private or personal information, without fear that this information will be revealed in a court setting.
There’s an extent to which the physician-patient privilege may operate. Patients who confess a desire to harm themselves and/or others give the doctor a right to inform the police, mental health services, or involuntarily commit the person to a mental institution. The privilege is not total and entire and many countries make laws regarding when doctors may be called on to testify against patients or inform other people or authorities regarding the potential for harm to the patient or to others.
Another instance when the physician-patient privilege might be void is when a country’s laws require mandatory reporting of certain diseases, such as sexually transmitted ones. In these cases, a doctor may be required to inform other people with whom a patient has had sexual relations about the presence of a disease. A doctor might be able to question the patient and disclose a patient’s sexual history to others in order to find the potential carrier for a disease. State health agencies make determinations on when it is necessary to violate doctor-patient confidentiality in this manner. A patient who knows this may be unwilling to discuss sexual history if they are protecting someone from statutory rape charges, (such as a teen girl protecting an older boyfriend), or sexual behavior on the patient’s part that might be deemed criminal.
In some states, doctors may be mandated to report injuries like gunshots, which again stands in the way of the physician-patient privilege and confidentiality. A person who has been shot while committing a crime may not go to the hospital if he or she is aware that the incident will be reported to police. In the past and present this has led to a few doctors giving treatment to patients on a highly confidential and illegal basis, though the number of doctors who act in this manner are decidedly few.
Some people argue that all communication between a doctor and patient should be privileged information, since exceptions to the physician-patient privilege still means some patients will withhold vital information that could be necessary to treatment. Others contend that a physician has a duty to protect patients and also any person the patient might harm. Failure to give adequate warning to others in the last century, led to some prominent court cases in the US, where doctors were sued for not warning people that a patient posed a danger. This has led in the US to the current interpretation of privilege, where doctors are usually obligated to report the potential of a patient harming others, and can ignore doctor-patient confidentiality to do so.