What is Physician-Patient Privilege and Why is It Important?


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Most of us have probably heard or been told that anything we tell our doctor is confidential. While this may be reassuring, it may have left you wondering why it was true and what the reason for that confidentiality was? How far does it extend? Would it hold up in court?

Physician–patient privilege is a rule of evidence in most jurisdictions, as well as a statutory guarantee, and in some cases even a federal law. The term is used rather broadly to refer to the concept that communications between a patient and his or her doctor will be protected from disclosure to third parties and cannot be used against the patient in court or other legal proceedings. The purpose is several fold, but the primary reason is to allow the patient to speak freely with a doctor who is treating him or her to ensure that the patient receives the best and fullest medical care available under the circumstances.

So, for instance, should a patient confess to a psychiatrist that he or she has committed a crime, the doctor would not be allowed to share that information or be compelled to testify against the patient. Similarly, the physician-patient privilege extends to normal matters one might ask another's doctor during a civil matter, like in a personal injury case where one might ask whether the doctor believed a condition had improved or if an injury was purely pre-existing.

On the other hand, the Physician-Patient privilege does not extend to conversations with a doctor when he or she is not treating the person. So, for example, if someone tells their doctor friend about a crime committed or the nature of a medical condition while the two are golfing together, that communication is not likely to be protected in any way.

As noted, the reasoning behind the rule is to ensure that a patient feels comfortable sharing openly and honestly with his or her treating physician. If the patient were afraid of sharing the truth for fear that it may lead to an arrest or damaging testimony at trial, the patient may not be truthful and the treatment process could become ineffective, take much longer, or lead to an incorrect diagnosis. For example, an underage teen could come to a doctor with a pregnancy or a venereal disease, but without the assurance of physician-patient privilege could be unwilling to divulge the exact nature of the illness. This may be particularly true if the teen's partner is above the age of consent, and the patient fears criminal charges for the partner. This could cause a doctor to misdiagnose the symptoms and prescribe treatment that could be dangerous to the fetus or ineffectual in treating the illness. Fortunately, physician-patient privilege prevents that fear and allows the teen to share the information without fear of reprisals against either the patient or the partner.

However, even though physician-patient privilege protects the patient from disclosures that could lead to civil or criminal liability, there are laws in many jurisdictions that require a doctor to share some information. For instance, venereal diseases are often required to be shared with the state's health department in order to prevent further spread. While the information would be shared, including who spread the disease, this information generally would not be legally shared with law enforcement or used as evidence in a criminal or civil proceeding. Other information might have to be shared with an insurance provider, but again, the same types of restrictions would usually apply.

Note, however, that the physician-patient privilege is not recognized under the Federal Rules of Evidence. While most states have such an evidence rule, federal courts do not. Nevertheless, the concept is generally protected by other federal laws, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) which prevents most disclosures about a patient's health. At the state level, the extent of the physician-patient privilege varies from one jurisdiction to another. For example, some states may not fully embrace the privilege in criminal matters, while others may only permit it to a limited extent in civil cases.

As a result, if you are in doubt about the nature and extent of the physician-patient privilege in your jurisdiction, you should contact a local attorney for clarification. You can find a list of attorneys in your area by visiting the Law Firms page of HG.org and searching by location.

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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