Student breach of confidentiality

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 sought advice from the MDU. 

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 and a patient has suffered 'harm or distress' as a result, and to offer an apology. 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 or in a public place' (GMC Medical students: professional values and fitness to practise (2009), paragraph 27).

All doctors, including medical students, are expected to follow GMC guidance on consent and confidentiality. Patients must be certain that information they divulge will be kept confidential. Without this assurance, they 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 also give it the opportunity to apologise to the patient. 

This page was correct at publication on 12/12/2014. 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.