by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.
Confidentiality is one of the sacrosanct principles of medicine. By keeping the secrets that patients share with health care providers, the patient trusts the provider and the provider has the information necessary to diagnose and treat. The Hippocratic Oath, American Medical Association commentaries, 1974 Federal Privacy Act and 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act place confidentiality front and center in ethics and law.
Although we place confidentiality on a high pedestal, it does have many exceptions—some which are acceptable and some of which are required. For example, under the Tarasoff rule a provider in most states must report a specific and explicit threat to a third party. Reporting is required for concerns of public health such as abuse or infectious disease. Information must be shared if law enforcement shows a subpoena. A physician may consult colleagues about a case. Administrative assessment and quality improvement review can access patient information without specific patient consent. In some states, a physician may inform a spouse of certain infectious diseases even when the partner does not want him/her to know. Exceptions are not made lightly since the lack of protecting secrets can decrease patient trust and thus the ability for health care providers to help patients. When exceptions are carved out they are generally because maintaining secrecy would substantially harm the patient or a third party.
A new required exception may be added to this list if New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has his way. He is asking the federal government to carve out a HIPAA exception to allow reporting to a family if a loved one has an opioid overdose.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.