The privilege that exists between a doctor and their patient, known as a doctor-patient privilege, ensures that as a patient, your medical history, conditions, and related information cannot be divulged to others without your permission. This privilege exists because patients should be able to tell their doctors private and sensitive information knowing that it will not be made public. Even a doctor’s observations and opinions are covered by the doctor-patient privilege.
Since the doctor-patient privilege exists only in state law, the extent of the privacy provided by the privilege varies from state to state. Federal law recognizes no such privilege, despite the common usage of the privilege in virtually all other jurisdictions. As there is not a federal statute recognizing the doctor-patient privilege, many federal courts will decline to invoke such a privilege.
The purpose of the privilege is to encourage patients to give their doctor enough information to provide proper treatment, so the privilege provides a safe haven environment for patients to be perfectly honest about their physical well-being with their doctors without worrying about whether that information will be shared with third parties. Thus, all medical reports, tests, X-Rays, drug prescriptions and any other medical information collected about the patient or medical advice given by the doctor are often protected by the privilege, as well as the doctor’s observations and opinions concerning the patient’s physical health. Tis means that the doctor cannot share such information without first obtaining the patient’s permission to share the information.
Despite the need to preserve the confidentiality of medical information, there are many instances where the doctor-patient privilege does not apply. Here are some examples:
- Health insurance: Health insurance providers can get medical information without asking your consent if the information is for billing purposes. An insurer needs to know what condition you have in order to determine if they will cover it. However, the insurance company generally cannot forward this information to others without your express consent.
- Health care workers: Releasing your information to other hospital workers may be necessary in order for the workers to be able to provide you with the proper care. An example would be if you got into a car accident and lost conscious; the hospital you went to would need to obtain your medical information to provide proper care.
- Lawsuits: If medical conditions are at issue in a lawsuit, medical records may be released to resolve the lawsuit. For example, if you were suing for worker’s compensation because your employer refuses to pay for your injury, your medical information will likely be admitted into evidence.
- Criminal liability: This exception pertains mainly to psychiatric care. If a patient tells the psychiatrist about having committed a crime or that they are thinking about committing one, the psychiatrist may be compelled to report it to the authorities. Psychiatrists will not always report it because they want the patient to express everything freely.
- Abortion Notification: Some states require that the parents of a minor be notified or even give consent before an abortion can be performed.
- Harmful Action: Although doctors are typically restricted from breaking patient confidentiality, doctors are also restricted from causing harm to others. If a patient’s actions would cause harm to others, the doctor may be compelled to break the privilege. The most common occurrence of this exception is when a patient has HIV or another sexually transmitted disease and wishes to have unprotected sex with partners who have no knowledge of the patient’s condition.
If the doctor gives away enough information to identify the patient, the doctor is still guilty of violating the privilege, even if the patient is not specifically identified by name. Patient privacy is becoming an ethnic issue for doctors as social media such as Facebook and blogging become more popular.
If you believe that your doctor has violated the privilege, then you should contact an experienced personal injury attorney. An attorney can tell you more about your rights, defenses, and the complicated legal system. Also, an attorney can assist you in bringing a lawsuit if you have been the victim of a privilege violation.