What is physician-patient privilege?

By Elly McGuinness | Last updated: December 3, 2020

Physician-patient privilege is a legal concept that pertains to the medical information shared by a patient with their physician. Also know as "doctor-patient privilege," it offers some level of protection for the patient in a court of law or during other legal proceedings. In most jurisdictions, information that a patient has shared with their doctor cannot be used against them.

The overarching theme of physician-patient privilege is confidentiality. In the context of a patient-doctor relationship, confidentiality ensures that the patient's health information and records are protected and kept private. This protection pertains to written, oral, electronic, or any other form of communication. Some of this information is known as confidential data, which would personally identify a patient.

Doctor-patient privilege does not apply to information shared with a doctor outside of their role as a medical provider. An example could be information that is shared by the patient, with the doctor, during social engagements.

The concept of physician-patient privilege is also relevant within the workplace setting. If a patient goes to their doctor for a private drug test, the doctor generally cannot share the results with anyone (including workplace employers), without the patient's written consent. In most situations, this information is protected by federal laws such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). [Find out more in "Who can see my drug test results?"].

Laws and guidelines around physician-patient privilege are in place for an important reason. These rules ensure that patients can communicate freely and openly with their physicians. In turn, this enables physicians to provide the best recommendations and care options for their patients because they have the required personal information to be able to do so.

Essentially, physician-patient privilege offers the patient their best chance of an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan. If a patient was to hold back personal information for fear of it being shared and used against them in some way they would not be able to receive the best possible treatment for their health condition or concern.

Although the HIPAA prevents the disclosure of most personal health information, laws centered on the sharing of this information can vary from state to state. It's possible that some states may require the release of doctor-patient information with regard to criminal matters. A local attorney can offer advice for their specific jurisdiction.

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Written by Elly McGuinness

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Elly has been inspiring people to make sustainable changes to their health, fitness and lifestyle for the past 15 years. She offers online solutions for people who are looking to get started on, or improve their health and fitness. She blogs regularly, writes for a number of health and well-being publications and is the published author of a holistic weight loss book.

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