Doctor Patient Confidentiality

This post will go over some basic legal concepts that you need to know about doctor-patient confidentiality.

Confidentiality between patients and physicians is a fundamental tenet of modern healthcare and medical practice. Knowing that your doctor will keep your personal information confidential is absolutely necessary for effective medical evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment. Without this safeguard, patients would not feel free to disclose certain things to their doctors.

Most people are generally aware of the concept of doctor-patient confidentiality law. We sort of just expect our doctors to keep our personal information confidential and we understand that there are some ethical rules that require them to do that. But few people are very familiar with the legal underpinnings of doctor-patient confidentiality. Confidentiality is more than just an ethical ideal that physicians are supposed to adhere to for their patients.  Patients have an affirmative legal right to confidentiality. In fact, most states have statutory laws protecting patient confidentiality.

When Does a Doctor-Patient Confidentiality Apply?

The legal and ethical principle of doctor-patient confidentiality applies to all communications and information within a genuine doctor-patient relationship. The doctor-patient relationship exists whenever a person seeks medical advice or treatment from a doctor and have a reasonable expectation of privacy. The doctor-patient relationship and privacy expectation do need to be expressly stated or put in writing. The relationship and confidentiality can be implied based on the circumstances.

If you walk into a doctor’s office and get a physical examination, a doctor-patient relationship exists and all communications are confidential. However, if you are talking to a doctor at a party and you ask for his or her opinion about a medical issue, there would not be a doctor-patient relationship and no confidentiality applies.

What Does Doctor-Patient Confidentiality Cover?

Once a doctor-patient relationship arises, the doctor’s duty of confidentiality applies to any communications, records, opinions, or knowledge related to that relationship. This means that confidentiality not only applies to things you might tell your doctor, but it also covers any conclusions, theories, or opinions that your doctor might form in connection with your medical treatment.

doctor patient confidentialityThe confidentiality of patient communications is not limited to conversations between patient and doctor. Confidentiality covers any statements or communications between a patient and other professional staff at the doctor’s office. Your medical records (e.g., medical history, doctor’s notes, diagnostics testing, lab reports, and the like) are also expressly covered by doctor-patient confidentiality.

Confidential information and records include:

  • Any patient treatment-related information (including names) related to appointments, exams, assessments, medical procedures, referrals, diagnosis, or treatment options discussed with the patient
  • Doctor’s conclusions, opinions, or assessments related to patient
  • Medical records of any type including medical history, lab tests, x-rays, and other diagnostic imaging studies
  • Any communications between the patient and doctor or members of the doctor’s office staff.

What Constitutes a Breach of Doctor-Patient Confidentiality?

A breach of doctor-patient confidentiality occurs whenever a doctor (or someone in the doctor’s office) discloses or releases patient information to a 3rd party without the express consent of the patient.

In other words, if your doctor shares ANYTHING about you without your consent it will be a breach of confidentiality unless there is some exception under state law.

Exceptions to doctor-patient confidentiality under state law require doctors to share confidentiality information in certain situations based on public policy concerns. For example, doctors in Maryland are obligated to breach confidentiality to report signs of child abuse. In other states, such as New York, hospitals are legally obligated to report gunshot victims.

In addition to state law exemptions, sometimes patients may give consent to sharing confidential information without even realizing it. May doctors require new patients to sign agreements that give them consent to share patient information.

These waiver forms are usually limited in scope, however, and only allow doctors to disclose patient information when necessary and reasonable.

Other legal exceptions to a breach of doctor-patient confidentiality include:

  • Medical treatment of injuries that could relate to criminal conduct (e.g., gunshot wounds, drunk driving, hit and run).
  • Disclosures to the patient’s health insurance company for the purposes of getting insurance coverage for treatment.
  • Notifying public health officials if the patient tests positive for certain communicable diseases (e.g., a positive test for COVID-19)

Confidentiality in Medical Malpractice Lawsuits

The rules of doctor-patient confidentiality change drastically when you file a medical malpractice lawsuit. Medical malpractice lawyers in Maryland run into this issue all the time. If you sue a doctor for medical malpractice, you have to file a complaint disclosing all the otherwise confidential doctor-patient communications. The act of filing a lawsuit and making this information public is treated as express consent for the doctor to disclose confidential information regarding the treatment at issue. You can’t sue a doctor and then use confidentiality to prevent them from defending the allegations.

Contact Our Medical Malpractice Lawyers About Your Case

If you have been seriously harmed by medical negligence, our Maryland malpractice lawyers can help get the compensation you are entitled to. Contact us today for a free consultation.