A confidentiality breach

A confidentiality breach causes one final year student to worry about the impact this may have on the patient, themselves and the hospital.

The scenario

During a consultant-led ward round, a final year student examined a patient who had broken her hip. Later that day, the patient's friend visited and asked the student about the patient's condition. The student told her that the patient was recovering well, but also commented on her osteoporosis - a condition the friend was not aware of. The student immediately apologised to the patient and her friend for the mistake and for causing them any distress. She was uncertain what to do next and contacted the MDU for advice.

MDU advice

The student was right to apologise to the patient. The GMC requires you to be open and honest with patients when things go wrong. Saying sorry, when appropriate, is not an admission of liability and sometimes may be all the patient wants to hear.

Patients have a right to expect information about them to be held in confidence and you should not discuss their case with "anyone not directly involved in their care without the patient's permission." Without this assurance, patients may be reluctant to reveal private or sensitive information that a medical practitioner needs to provide full and appropriate care.

The student was also advised to tell a senior member of the team caring for the patient about the breach of confidentiality. This would alert the hospital to the breach and give it the opportunity to apologise to the patient. The student was also advised to write a reflection about what had happened and to speak with their tutor about the lesson learnt.

Reflecting helps individuals and teams to demonstrate insight and identify learning opportunities to improve future practice. It's an important skill to develop when entering clinical settings and allows the quality and safety of patient care to be constantly reviewed and improved.

Listen to our podcast on the reflective process.

Key takeaways

  • Inform a senior member of your team about any breach of confidentiality immediately.
  • Saying sorry is not an admission of liability - it's important to apologise appropriately.
  • Do not discuss patient information with anyone not directly involved in their care without the patient's permission, as the GMC states.
  • Reflect on the incident - this will demonstrate insight and improve your future practice.

This is a fictionalised case compiled from actual MDU case files.

This page was correct at publication on 09/02/2023. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

Dr Catherine Wills

by Dr Catherine Wills Medico-legal adviser


Catherine joined the MDU in 2004 and is deputy head of the advisory department. Previously, Catherine was a hospital consultant in general medicine, diabetes and endocrinology.