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Breaches of Doctor-Patient Confidentiality

There are certain relationships that, by their very nature, require one or both party's consent before information can be disclosed to a third-party. Perhaps the most common of these relationships include that of: doctor to patient, therapist to patient, and attorney to client. Because these types of relationships often involve very personal and sensitive information (such as medical conditions or personal finances), confidentiality serves to facilitate open and forthright communication between both parties -- thereby serving the best interests of all involved.

What is Doctor-Patient Confidentiality?

Doctor-patient confidentiality is based on the notion that a person shouldn't be worried about seeking medical treatment for fear that his or her condition will be disclosed to others. The objective of this confidential relationship is to make patients feel comfortable enough providing any and all relevant information. This helps the doctor to make a correct diagnosis, and ultimately to provide the patient with the best possible medical care.

As a result, once a doctor takes a patient on, there's an expectation that the physician will hold that special knowledge in confidence and use it exclusively for the benefit of the patient. He or she cannot divulge any medical information about the patient to third persons without the patient's consent, though there are some exceptions (e.g. issues relating to health insurance, if confidential information is at issue in a lawsuit, or if a patient or client plans to cause immediate harm to others).

What Is Covered By Doctor-Patient Confidentiality?

The professional duty of confidentiality covers not only what a patient may reveal to the doctor, but also any opinions and conclusions the doctor may form after having examined or assessed the patient. Confidentiality covers all medical records (including medical history, pre-existing medical conditions, x-rays, lab-reports, etc.), as well as communications between the patient and the doctor. Generally, this also includes communications between the patient and other professional staff working with the doctor.

What Constitutes a Breach of Confidentiality?

A breach of confidentiality occurs when a patient's private information is disclosed to a third party without his or her consent. There are limited exceptions to this, including disclosures to state health officials and court orders requiring medical records to be produced.

Patient confidentiality is protected under state law. If a patient's private information is disclosed without authorization and causes some type of harm to the patient, he or she could have a cause of action against the medical provider for malpractice, invasion of privacy, or other related torts. Of course, if the patient consented to the disclosure, no breach occurred.

How Long Does Doctor-Patient Confidentiality Last?

The duty of confidentiality continues even after a patient has stopped seeing or being treated by that particular doctor. The duty even survives the death of a patient. That means if the patient passes away, his or her medical records and information are still protected by doctor-patient confidentiality.

More Information

For more information, check out FindLaw has compiled information on the differences between confidentiality and privacy. If you have more specific questions regarding a breach of doctor-patient confidentiality, you may want to consider consulting with a medical malpractice attorney in your area.

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