Medical records confidentiality refers to the right to have personal health care records kept private and the obligation of certain individuals to do so. Maintaining privacy means taking appropriate measures to prevent any unauthorized third party from discovering a person's health information. Protecting patients' privacy in this way is a matter of professional ethics, but it is also commonly a matter of law.
When a physician treats a patient, it is expected that any information that is communicated, discovered, or speculated within that relationship will be held in confidence. Although this type of protection is often referred to as doctor-patient privilege, physicians are not the only individuals bound by the obligations of medical records confidentiality. Other health care professionals such as psychiatrists, nurses, and dentists are expected to act in the same way. The standards also apply to individuals associated with the health care industry but not directly involved in providing care, such as laboratory technicians, pharmacists, and billing clerks.
Maintaining medical records confidentiality involves several things. To begin with, health care professionals should not provide unauthorized third parties access to information about patients. This includes oral and written communications and access to files. Health care professionals are also generally required to take certain measures to ensure that medical information is secured in a manner that prevents third parties from easily obtaining it without consent. For example, a nurse can violate medical records confidentiality regulations by leaving a person's medical chart in a waiting room.
There are several reasons why medical records confidentiality is so important. A main reason is because this type of protection benefits both patients and medical professionals. If a patient fears that the information he discloses to a health care professional will be shared with others, he may keep secrets. To his detriment, he may not receive proper treatment. This situation can also present disadvantages to the physician because the absence of information that could lead to an easy and accurate diagnosis will require her to work harder. Another reason medical records confidentiality is so important is because in many societies a person is entitled to privacy.
The consequences of disclosing health information are often greater than the embarrassment of the patient. A medical professional who does so may be ordered to pay damages and the facility where she is employed may be ordered to pay damages. It is very likely that her employment will be terminated as well as her professional license suspended. It should be noted, however, that there are some situations where the protection offered by medical records confidentiality do not apply, such as when there is a court order.