When a patient heads to their family physician for a routine check-up or visits the hospital for a more intensive procedure, they deserve to know that the information they share is kept confidential. Patients in any medical setting want to rest assured that their personal information is not going to be available to anyone other than the physicians and medical staff involved in their care.
There are a variety of reasons why patients might want their personal information to be kept private. For example:
- Victims of domestic violence may want to create a barrier between themselves and their abuser
- Someone requiring substance abuse treatment might not want to broadcast this fact to current / future employers
- A young teenage girl practicing safe sex with contraception may not want her doctor to call her parents.
Bottom line: Patient trust is a critical aspect of proper care. Patients need to be able to frankly discuss their issues, concerns and symptoms in order for doctors to accurately treat them.
When Is It Acceptable to Breach Patient Confidentiality?
Under ordinary circumstances, medical professionals are not allowed to disclose any information from a patient's medical record to a third party unless the patient authorizes it. Naturally there are some exceptions to the patient confidentiality rule. Some instances in which a medical professional may disclose patient information without proper authorization occur when:
- There is reasonable probability that a patient will inflict serious harm on a third party or on him/herself
- The patient has been a victim on a gunshot or knife wound
- A doctor believes a patient to be the victim of abuse and the patient is unable to give or withhold consent to disclose
- The preventing, detecting, or prosecuting of a serious crime would be prejudiced or delayed
- A doctor needs to act in the best interest of a child or young person who is incapable of consenting to disclosure
All members of the medical profession are required to strictly follow the American Medical Association's (AMA) Code of Medical Ethics and its accompanying patient confidentiality rules. Any unauthorized breach of confidentiality can result in disciplinary measures.
Medical professionals need to abide by patient confidentiality rules not only to protect their patients' rights, but also to protect the hospital, private practice, or clinic where they are employed. Patients who sue for breaches of confidentiality can cost medical establishments a great deal of money.
It is best to start learning the rules of patient confidentiality from the very beginning of one's medical education. Putting them into practice correctly from the start is the first step towards avoiding costly missteps and career-damaging accusations. Patient trust is a key factor in successful medicine, and this trust is built on the rules of patient confidentiality.
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