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Doctor-Patient Confidentiality

Patients should have rights over their own health information, including who can see their medical records. Doctors generally have a duty of confidentiality when it comes to patient information. Doctors are limited in sharing medical information about a patient. If a doctor does break doctor-patient confidentiality, it can damage the patient’s trust in healthcare professionals.

A breach of doctor-patient confidentiality could be a state law or federal violation and could allow the victim to recover damages. If you have questions about your legal rights after your medical information was shared or your privacy was violated, talk to a medical malpractice lawyer for legal advice about what you can do.

What Is Doctor-Patient Confidentiality?

Doctor-patient confidentiality is a part of medical ethics that has a long history. Doctors have an ethical duty not to share private information about their patients, including sensitive information about the patient’s personal life, medical history, drug use, and medical conditions. Patient privacy and confidentiality are more than just an ethical duty. There are also state and federal medical privacy laws to protect personal patient information.

Patients have a strong interest in privacy in their personal health care. There are parts of someone’s private life or past that they may not want to share with others, even their own loved ones.

Proper medical care may require honesty and openness between a doctor and a patient. Understanding the patient’s medical history is necessary for the patient’s treatment and medical care. Patients may only be encouraged to share private information with a doctor because it can be essential for medical diagnosis and treatment.

Doctor-Patient Confidentiality Laws in Different States

Medical confidentiality is generally protected under federal law, but each state also has its own rules and regulations for doctor-patient confidentiality. If your doctor breaches your confidentiality, shares your medical information, or fails to protect your privacy, a medical malpractice law firm in your state can help you understand your legal rights.

For example, in New York, confidential information is privileged under the Civil Practice Law and Rules Section 4504. Unless the patient waives the privilege, a person authorized to practice medicine shall not be allowed to disclose any information they acquired in attending to a patient professionally.

Confidentiality in Substance Abuse Treatment

Areas where patients may be concerned about disclosure and confidentiality include sexual history, drug use, and substance abuse. There may even be additional privacy laws to cover medical services involving drug or alcohol treatment.

In California, under Health and Safety Code § 11845.5 applies to medical record privacy involving drug and alcohol treatment. “The identity and records of the identity, diagnosis, prognosis, or treatment of any patient, which identity and records are maintained in connection with the performance of any alcohol and other drug abuse treatment or prevention effort or function,” is confidential and only disclosed under limited circumstances, including for treatment for a medical emergency.

How Long Does Doctor-Patient Confidentiality Last?

A doctor’s duty of confidentiality begins as soon as the patient and doctor establish a professional relationship. The doctor is under a continuing duty of doctor-patient confidentiality. The duty continues even after the doctor and patient no longer have a professional relationship. If the patient no longer ever sees the doctor, the doctor still has a duty to keep the patient’s information private.

When Can a Doctor Break Confidentiality?

There are very limited situations where a doctor can break doctor-patient confidentiality, including where the patient is a danger to themselves or others or where the patient’s medical care is at issue in a legal case.

Risk of Injury to the Patient or Others

A doctor may have a duty to report certain issues to law enforcement, including information about a crime that has occurred, information relating to public health, and evidence of domestic violence, abuse, or neglect. If the patient is considered at risk of injuring themselves or others, a doctor may also have a duty to report the danger.

Court Litigation Involving the Doctor and Patient

When medical care becomes an issue in dispute in a legal case, a doctor may provide information about the patient’s care. For example, if a patient files medical malpractice against a doctor, the doctor could testify about the patient’s medical care because it is at issue in the lawsuit.

Sharing Medical Information for Medical Care

In some cases, there is a medical purpose for sharing a patient’s medical information. Sharing a patient’s medical history and medical records is a routine part of healthcare when there is more than one healthcare provider involved in the patient’s care. For most patients, consent to share information is obtained in writing at the beginning of treatment.

For example, under Florida Statute 456.057, “Information disclosed to a health care practitioner by a patient in the course of the care and treatment of such patient is confidential and may be disclosed only to other health care practitioners and providers involved in the care or treatment of the patient if allowed by written authorization from the patient.”

What Is a HIPAA Violation?

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) is a federal law that provides privacy protection for patients’ health information. Healthcare providers are generally prohibited from sharing patient information without the patient’s consent. The HIPAA Privacy Rule limits the use and disclosure of Protected Health Information (PHI) for covered entities, with limited exceptions for disclosure when required by law.

What Can I Do If My Doctor Breaches Patient Confidentiality?

If your doctor breaches doctor-patient confidentiality, the patient may have a claim against the careless doctor. Sharing private medical information could be considered a HIPAA violation. In some cases, breaching confidentiality could also be considered medical malpractice, allowing the injury victim to recover damages.

Contact a medical malpractice attorney to ask about a free consultation to give you a case evaluation to help you understand your legal options.

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