Watch a medical television show and the issue of patient confidentiality is likely to come up in at least one episode. Most people understand that the patient’s right to keep their medical history and condition private is a pillar of the health care system.
However, as a health care professional, you know there may be instances when breaking a patient’s confidentiality could act in their best interest. This is a tricky situation, as you do not want to do the patient harm or face legal ramifications. When is it legally permissible to break confidentiality and release patient information?
In Wisconsin, a patient’s records cannot be released without their consent, but there are many exceptions. Some of these exceptions include disclosing information to:
- A spouse, domestic partner, parent, adult child or sibling who is directly involved in providing care or monitoring a patient’s treatment
- An individual’s counsel or guardian ad litem (a court-appointed individual who investigates the best interests of a child)
- Health care providers who are unable to obtain the individual’s consent in an emergency or due to the patient’s condition
- Public attorneys
- The Protection & Advocacy group
- Any individual if a forensic patient is on unauthorized absence from a treatment facility
- Staff within the department to coordinate treatment, such as for those with mental illnesses, developmental disabilities and substance abuse
- A health care provider acting under supervision of a health care provider involved in the patient’s care
- A facility that will receive an involuntarily committed or forensic patient from another facility as part of a transfer
Most of these exceptions do have limitations as to what information can be disclosed, so the exceptions do not grant a free-for-all to release records. There is still a narrow scope under which health care professionals can disclose a patient’s medical information.
What about minors?
Minors have the same confidentiality rights as adults and the same limited scope of exceptions apply. However, if a patient were to reveal information that the law mandates should be reported, such as sexual abuse or non-consensual sexual activity, releasing that information to law enforcement or social workers would be appropriate.
What to do if faced with a lawsuit
If you have any questions about the legal exceptions for health care professionals or are facing a lawsuit for breaking a client’s confidentiality, a health law attorney can provide detailed insight and counsel to help you understand the law and reach an effective solution.