GPs have an unusual relationship with their patients. Together, you might well share moments that are deeply emotional and come to learn details that they’ve shared with no-one else, not even their closest.
That’s part of the job – but it also presents a challenge to GPs. There’s a need for doctors to be able to protect patients – but there are other situations where sharing information might be necessary.
The General Medical Council has drawn up useful guidance for such scenarios. In this post, we take a look at some of the GMC’s advice to give you an understand
GP confidentiality: What the GMC says
There are six key areas highlighted by the GMC when it comes to doctor/patient confidentiality and data.
Education and training
Patients’ data should anonymised for this purpose. If it’s not possible to do so, medical professionals should ask for the patient’s consent. When obtaining this consent, you should be clear about what the information is set to be used for and who will be using it. Patients have to have the opportunity to say no – and shouldn’t feel obliged to take part.
GPs might be asked for information by someone’s employer. Similarly, data on the health of an individual might be requested by an insurance company or sports team. You should only comply with such requests if:
- you’re happy that the patient knows what is being requested and how it’ll be used
- you have seen written consent from the patient
- you only provide factual information that is relevant to the matter
- you offer to show the patient your report or send them a copy
Spread of serious disease
There are some circumstances in which the ‘public interest’ means that health information must be disclosed. The GMC outlines that this could be the case when it comes to ‘serious communicable diseases’. It states: “If you consider that failure to disclose the information would leave individuals or society exposed to a risk so serious that it outweighs the patient’s and the public interest in maintaining confidentiality, you should disclose relevant information promptly to an appropriate person or authority.”
The above scenario demonstrates that doctors have a duty to protect and promote the health of the public as well as their patients. This can also collide with doctor/patient confidentiality when it comes to driving. A driver has a legal responsibility to tell the DVLA if they have a condition or treatment that means they are unfit to drive. Doctors should tell them if they have such conditions and make clear that driving is something that isn’t safe in these circumstances (and, legally, should be reported). However, if they continue to drive when unfit a GP may feel it’s in the public interest to reveal this to the DVLA. Even then, GPs should alert patients that they feel this is necessary and let them know when they have contacted the DVLA.
Gunshot and knife wounds
It’s clearly in the public interest for the police to investigate serious crimes such as those involving gunshot or knife wounds – but doctors need to be careful not to deter patients from coming forward when they need medical assistance too. Again, this is a balancing act. If you feel that your patient and/or others are at a serious risk, you should disclose this to the authorities in a sensitive and appropriate manner.
Some patients choose to publicly criticise their GPs in the media. This can be stressful and frustrating – especially if you feel the details they have given to the press are inaccurate or misleading. However, it’s important to note that this alone doesn’t relieve you of your duty to maintain confidentiality. A public row can undermine a GP’s standing in the eyes of other patients and prolong the issue. GPs are advised to avoid commenting – or sticking to general remarks about their practice.
Any GP who is concerned about confidentiality – whether that’s maintaining this or balancing it against the public interest – should seek support. Contact us if you have a query on confidentiality or any other matter relating to your work as a GP.