A duty of confidentiality means that conversations between a therapist and her patients in the course of treatment are private and cannot be disclosed to others. It is the patient’s right to keep these conversations private, and he gets to decide if and when to tell others what was said to the therapist. If a therapist violates the duty of confidentiality, she can be liable for malpractice.
There are very few exceptions to a therapist’s duty of confidentiality, and those exceptions tend to be very narrow. One of the most important exceptions is the Dangerous Patient Exception.
The dangerous patient exception requires therapists to warn third parties if her patient poses a danger to another person. This duty to warn arises because therapists have a "special relationship" to their patients.
A therapist generally has a duty to warn when there is good reason, or reasonable cause, to believe the patient is a danger to another person. Reasonable cause is determined by two facts:
- The patient made a threat against a specific and identifiable person
- The threat was believable, as indicated by the patient’s history and motive
Once the duty to warn arises, the therapist must take steps that will reasonably protect the patient’s intended victim. These steps generally include:
- Warning the intended victim
- Warning the intended victim’s family and friends
- Telling local law enforcement
A therapist who unreasonably fails to recognize a credible threat against a third party, or who fails to take reasonable steps to protect the intended victim from harm, can be liable to the intended victim or his family if the patient acts on the threat.
Malpractice law can be very complicated, and the success of a case often turns on particular facts. If you have a problem involving a therapist’s duty of confidentiality, you may want to consult an experienced products and services attorney.