Doctor-patient confidentiality is the cornerstone of the relationship between any medical professional and the patients for whom they care. Without the assurance of confidentiality, patients are unable to trust their doctors with the truth. As a result, they either lie to their doctors or simply omit information because they want to keep it a secret. In contrast, when patients trust that what they say will stay between them and their doctor, honesty is more likely. This openness allows doctors to provide their patients with the best medical care possible.

Understanding Doctor-Patient Confidentiality

Doctor-patient confidentiality is as old as the medical profession itself. The concept is in the Oath of Hippocrates that all new physicians take. When taking the oath, newly licensed doctors make the following promise:

Whatever, in connection with my professional service, or not in connection with it, I see or hear, in the life of men, which ought not to be spoken of abroad, I will not divulge, as reckoning that all such should be kept secret…

…Those things which are sacred, are to be imparted only to sacred persons; and it is not lawful to impart them to the profane until they have been initiated into the mysteries of the science.”

However, this idea has now gone beyond just a theory in the Hippocratic Oath. Doctor-patient confidentiality is your right. Most noteably, a right strongly protected both state and federal laws. These laws not only protect privacy, but they also provide patients with specific rights; and give them the means to file a complaint if they feel a violation of their rights occurred.

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What Does Confidentiality Mean?

Confidentiality is “the state of keeping or being kept secret or private.” Doctor-patient confidentiality means that when a patient seeks out the care of a doctor, they can rest assured that no one else will know of their diagnosis or treatments. What a patient says to their doctor stays between them. The purpose of doctor-patient confidentiality is to make sure that patients feel as if they can tell their doctors the truth about anything. Truth helps physicians diagnose and treat their patients accurately.

Laws now protect doctor-patient confidentiality. Before a doctor can disclose any information about their patients to a third party, the patient must give express written permission. Medical records, test results, and communications with other staff regarding the patient all fall under doctor-patient confidentiality. The law protects not only what the patient has told the doctor, but also covers any opinions drawn by the doctor following an examination. Especially noteworthy, Doctor-patient confidentiality even survives death. Doctors must respect the laws of confidentiality after a patient’s death.

Patient Rights Under HIPAA

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), first enacted in 1996, is a federal law that protects the rights and privacy of medical patients in the United States. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) oversees HIPAA laws, and consequently, they ensure enforcement of these privacy rules. The HIPAA Privacy Rule, which passed in 2003, protects doctor-patient confidentiality. Under HIPAA, patients have the following rights:

  1. Patients have the right to receive a notice of privacy practices
  2. They have the right to access and request a copy of medical records
  3. Patients have the right to request an amendment to medical records
  4. They also have the right to request special privacy protection for PHI
  5. Patients have the right to an accounting of disclosures
  6. Parents have the right to access a minor child’s medical records

If a patient feels a violation of their HIPAA rights happened, in any way, they may file a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights (OCR). If the OCR determines that violation of patient’s rights occurred, the entity at fault must either voluntarily comply with the HIPAA Rules, take corrective action, or agree to a settlement.

Why Patient Confidentiality Matters

Doctor-patient confidentiality is a vital component of the doctor-patient relationship. In fact, doctor-patient confidentiality is arguably the single most important factor involved in cultivating this special relationship between a doctor and their patient. Without trust that their doctor will keep their medical information private, patients can’t be open and honest with their doctors. The result is that their health care suffers. The importance of doctor-patient confidentiality isn’t new. This is why even the Hippocratic Oath includes provisions for this concept.

Federal and state laws now protect doctor-patient confidentiality. Thanks to HIPAA laws, patients can rest assured that their personal medical information will remain private. Furthermore, patients must give written permission before their medical information is accessible by anyone. HIPAA gives patients specific rights under the law. Most of all, this reinforces their trust in the health care system, thus improving their medical care overall.

Featured image CC by ND 2.0, via, via Flickr

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