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Can Doctor-Patient Confidentiality Be Broken?

By Cynthia Hsu, Esq. | Last updated on

You might have heard the phrase "doctor-patient confidentiality" or "physician-patient confidentiality" tossed around on some of your favorite television shows like Law & Order or CSI.

But, like most things on television, what you see isn't exactly reality.

Doctor-patient confidentiality doesn't necessarily mean you can go and spill your guts to your physician with the assurance your secrets will never come to light. It's not an absolute right.

What does this mean exactly? This means that there are times when your right to confidentiality might be overridden.

Most states recognize the right to confidentiality between a physician and his patient. The idea is that a patient should not be hindered by fear when seeking medical attention.

For example, a patient may feel embarrassed to reveal that he or she has an STD. But this information may be vital for a doctor to make an accurate medical exam. With doctor-patient confidentiality, patients are probably more likely to divulge this personal information to the physician because they know it generally won't be leaked to the others.

But there are exceptions - and not every state gives patients this right to confidentiality. The American Medical Association's (AMA) Code of Ethics states that confidentiality between a doctor and a patient is vital. But not all state and federal laws are in line with this notion.

There are multiple state and federal laws that protect confidentiality, but as the AMA points out it's a "crazy quilt" of law. There are privacy regulations, and specific legislations targeted toward protecting information such as HIV status and the like. So what protection you may be given might depend heavily on where you live.

And the right can be broken, through a court order that breaks doctor-patient confidentiality. So there you have it: physician-patient confidentiality isn't exactly as absolute - or perfect - as you might think given its prevalence on your favorite nighttime television drama.

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