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Confidentiality fundamental to sound healthcare

Effective medical care depends largely on the free flow of information between patient and healthcare professional, possibly only if patients are assured of confidentiality when they disclose anything.

The National Health Act makes it an offence to divulge information about health service users without the user’s consent. The only permissible exceptions are when the law or a court order requires disclosure, or if non-disclosure would represent a serious threat to public health.

There are relationships that require one or both party’s consent before information can be disclosed to a third-party. One of the common relationships is that of doctor and patient. This type of relationship involves personal and sensitive information.

Doctor-patient confidentiality is based on the notion that a person shouldn’t be worried about seeking medical treatment for fear that his or her condition will be disclosed to others. The objective of this confidential relationship is to make patients feel comfortable enough in providing any and all relevant information. This assists doctors in making correct diagnosis, and ultimately providing patients with the best possible medical care.

The HPCSA notes that practitioners may not divulge verbally or in writing information regarding a patient unless:
• In terms of a statutory provision;
• At the instruction of a court of law; or
• Where justified in the public interest.

Any information other than the information referred to above, shall be divulged by a practitioner only:
• With the express consent of the patient;
• In the case of a minor under the age of 12 years, with the written consent of his or her parent or guardian; or
• In the case of a deceased patient, with written consent of his/her next-of-kin or the executor of such deceased patient’s estate.

The duty of confidentiality continues even after a patient has stopped seeing or being treated by that particular practitioner. The duty even survives the death of a patient. That means if the patient passes away, his/ her medical records and information are still protected by doctor-patient confidentiality.

Last Updated on 18 October 2016 by HPCSA Corporate Affairs