What’s doc-patient privilege?

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Doctor-patient privilege means doctors can refuse to testify against their patients in court, but there are exceptions, such as when a patient confesses a desire to harm themselves or others. Mandatory reporting of certain diseases and injuries, such as gunshots, can also nullify the privilege. Some argue for complete confidentiality, while others argue doctors have a duty to protect patients and others.

Doctor-patient privilege is a legal term associated with doctor-patient confidentiality. In essence, this privilege means that doctors have the right to refuse to testify against their patients in court. There are exceptions and these are based on the particular laws of a state or country. People can also waive this privilege so that doctors can testify for them in trials.

The cantankerous Dr. House of the US TV show Fox House often claims that “people always lie.” His point is that patients who lie to their doctors will always make treatment and diagnosis extremely difficult. If a person fears potential legal complications because of his honesty, he may not provide a doctor with all the information needed to effectively determine a course of treatment. When doctor-patient privilege is extended to physicians, patients can disclose private or personal information, without fear of this information being revealed in court.

There is a measure to which doctor-patient privilege can operate. Patients who confess a desire to harm themselves and/or others give the doctor the right to inform the police, mental health services or to involuntarily commit the person to a psychiatric institution. The privilege is not full and complete, and many countries read when doctors may be called upon to testify against patients or inform other persons or authorities about potential harm to the patient or others.

Another case where the doctor-patient privilege may be null and void is when a country’s laws require mandatory reporting of certain diseases, such as sexually transmitted diseases. In these cases, the doctor may be asked to inform other people with whom a patient has had sex that the disease is present. A doctor may be able to question the patient and reveal a patient’s sexual history to others in order to find the potential carrier of a disease. State health agencies decide when it is necessary to violate doctor-patient confidentiality in this way. A patient who knows this may not be willing to discuss sexual history if she is protecting someone from rape allegations (such as a teenage girl protecting an older boyfriend) or from sexual behavior on the part of the patient that could be considered criminal.

In some states, doctors may be required to report injuries such as gunshots, which again hampers doctor-patient privilege and confidentiality. A person who has been shot while committing a crime cannot go to hospital if she knows that the incident will be reported to the police. In the past and present this has led some doctors to treat patients in highly confidential and illegal ways, although the number of doctors who do so is remarkably small.

Some people argue that all communications between a doctor and patient should be inside information, as exceptions to doctor-patient privilege still mean that some patients will withhold vital information that may be needed for treatment. Others argue that a doctor has a duty to protect patients and also any person the patient might harm. The failure to give adequate warning to others over the past century has led to some major court cases in the United States, where doctors have been sued for failing to warn people that a patient posed a danger. This has led in the United States to the current interpretation of privilege, in which physicians are generally mandated to report a patient’s potential for harming others and may override physician-patient confidentiality to do so.

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