Doctor-Patient Confidentiality Law – What To Know

It feels awful when someone shares your secrets. You might even wish they were thrown in jail for breaking your trust. But being a tattle-tale isn’t against the law. Unless… you’re a doctor. Doctor-patient confidentiality law prohibits physicians from sharing a patient’s medical history. Read all about this important law below.

Doctor views a patient's medical records.

What Is Doctor-Patient Confidentiality?

We place a lot of trust in our doctors. We trust them to diagnose us, treat us, and prescribe the correct medicine. Not only that – we trust them with our secrets. We trust them to not share what they know about our health. In many cases, doctors know things about patients that patients’ family members don’t even know.

That kind of patient information is deeply personal and private. And it should stay that way. How? There has to be a law in place to protect patients. Doctor-patient confidentiality. This patient-doctor confidentiality law prohibits health care providers from sharing a patient’s private information with others. But what is legally confidential?

What Is Legally Confidential In A Patient-Doctor Relationship?

Many, many forms of information are considered legally confidential. If you shared something with your doctor in confidence, chances are, it’s illegal for them to disclose that information. (Outside of some very specific cases that we’ll soon get to.) Here’s a few examples of confidential records and information:

  • Medical history and condition
  • Personal information
  • Almost any communication between the doctor and patient
  • Psychotherapy or counseling records
  • Any other medical records
  • The doctor’s assessments of the patient
  • Laboratory and diagnostic reports
  • A patient’s history in substance abuse treatment programs
  • Any information related to the patient’s medical treatment

Without this law, patients might shy away from divulging sensitive information with physicians. They would worry about it being shared with others. It might even reach the ears of family members, friends, a boss, or coworkers.

But if patients keep health information secret, how can doctors diagnose them? They can only prescribe correct treatment if a patient is open and honest about their medical history. That’s what makes doctor-patient confidentiality law so important.

Where Does The Patient-Doctor Confidentiality Law Come From?

There’s an unspoken rule that you don’t share your partner’s or best friend’s secrets. It’s common knowledge that your lawyer or doctor shouldn’t share your private info either. But confidentiality isn’t just an ethical obligation. It’s a legal one. Here’s where it stems from:

  • The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA). This is a federal law in the United States. It prevents doctors from sharing a patient’s personal information without their consent. 
  • The American Medical Association’s Code of Medical Ethics. Principle of Medical Ethics IV says: “A physician shall respect the rights of patients, colleagues, and other health professionals, and shall safeguard patient confidences and privacy within the constraints of the law.”

When Does Confidentiality Begin & End?

Now you might be wondering, “When does doctor-patient confidentiality law apply?” Is your doctor obligated to keep their lips (and medical files) sealed even if they stop treating you?

Here’s what the doctor-patient confidentiality law has to say about this:

  • Confidentiality begins as soon as a doctor agrees to see a patient. (This establishes a professional doctor-patient relationship.)
  • It applies even before a patient sees a doctor.
  • A patient doesn’t need to sign any documents in order for the physician to maintain privacy. 
  • It applies even if a doctor is no longer treating a patient.  
  • The doctor must keep information private even after the patient dies. 

In short, doctors have a duty to keep patient information private as soon as someone becomes their patient. The agreement never expires; it lasts forever. Unless, of course, the need for an exception comes up. Next, let’s take a look at possible exceptions to the doctor-patient confidentiality law.

Are There Exceptions To The Law?

You can breathe a sigh of relief—exceptions are rare. A doctor can only divulge a patient’s information in select situations, such as when there’s suspicion of crime. But even then, doctor-patient privilege laws in many states allow doctors to avoid disclosing information about a patient in court. 

So exceptions are made only when a doctor finds out that the patient is harming others or breaking the law. They may need to share information with law enforcement. 

A doctor may (or in some cases, must) break the doctor-patient confidentiality law when there’s evidence of:

  • A crime or intention to commit a crime
  • Child abuse or neglect
  • Domestic violence
  • A public health or safety threat
  • Death caused by criminal conduct
  • Certain situations involving sexually-transmitted diseases

Doctor-Patient Confidentiality Exceptions In Psychiatry

If there’s one type of doctor who’s privy to a lot of personal information, it’s a psychiatrist. People trust them with secrets they’d never share with anyone else–sometimes not even family.  After all, being honest with your psychiatrist is the only way to receive adequate treatment. 

In psychiatry, medical professionals may share private information when it involves what the Journal Psychiatry calls the “5 C’s”. 

  • Consent. The patient or their legal surrogate gives permission to share the information. 
  • Court Order. The clinician may disclose information if a court order demands it. 
  • Continued Treatment. If certain information is necessary for a patient to continue receiving treatment, a clinician may be allowed to divulge it. 
  • Comply with the Law. The law might oblige a clinician to report crime, such as child abuse or domestic violence. 
  • Communicate a Threat. If the patient is a threat to others, the doctor may disclose certain information. 

Is Breaking Confidentiality Medical Malpractice?

If you’ve ever had a doctor betray your confidence, you might wonder whether you can sue them. Breaking patient-doctor confidentiality law is malpractice when:

  • It’s considered a deviation of the “standard of care”. (The standard of care is the actions that any reasonably competent doctor would take in similar circumstances.) 
  • The patient was harmed in some way by the doctor’s actions. This doesn’t have to be physical harm. Emotional distress counts as well. 

Besides a patient suing privately, hospitals or doctors who break the confidentiality law may be subject to fines. 

One major example of this is a doctor-patient confidentiality case that happened back in 2012. The state of California found that Shasta Regional Medical Center broke the law by divulging a patient’s medical records to news outlets. 

It was as appalling as it sounds. Darlene Courtois, a diabetes patient, didn’t give permission for disclosure. But her hospital shared her records with three news agencies, plus hospital employees. They did so to try to rebut newspaper articles published earlier, in which Courtois said the hospital billed Medicare for a condition she didn’t have.  

The state fined the organization that owns the hospital over $95,000. Meanwhile, Courtois’ daughter told the Los Angeles Times, “We don’t want anything from the hospital but a written apology.”

Settlement for doctor-patient confidentiality breach.

Suing For Breach Of Confidentiality 

Thinking about filing a medical malpractice lawsuit? Here’s something to keep in mind. Should you choose to sue, you’ll lose your privacy. The patient-doctor confidentiality law becomes null and void, and the patient’s private information is basically no longer private. 

That’s because your medical information will now be at the center of the lawsuit. You may need to disclose information in order to prove your case. Your doctor will be allowed to disclose your medical records as well. 

But taking legal action is worth it when a doctor’s loose lips have turned your life upside down. Holding them accountable can ensure they never break doctor-patient confidentiality law again. 

You may also recover monetary damages as payment for your suffering. Speak to a qualified, caring attorney at Hampton & King to find out if you have a case. We offer initial consultations free of charge. Contact us any time to schedule an appointment.