Patients in the public eye

How to maintain patient confidentiality under the increased scrutiny of the media and public.

During your medical career, you may be involved in treating well-known people. It goes without saying that high-profile patients deserve the same level of confidentiality as anyone else, but it can be more difficult to protect their personal and medical information when the media are pushing for a story.

Should I speak to journalists?

The GMC advises that 'you must not put information you have learned in confidence about a patient in the public domain without that patient's explicit consent'.

Journalists know that doctors have a duty of confidentiality to patients. If you stand firmly by the line that you can't comment for this reason, they will generally not continue to question you.

If you realise that a particular case is likely to generate a lot of media interest, speak to your trust's press office or seek advice from the MDU press office.

Enquiries about patients

Be aware of the possibility that people trying to get information about a patient might pose as legitimate enquirers, such as a family member.

If you take a call from someone who says they are a close relative of a patient, take the necessary steps to check the caller is who they claim to be. Your trust may have a policy about this which you should follow, which might include:

  • asking the caller a set of questions to reassure you that they are who they say they are
  • if taking a call from a GP, you could check that they know the patient's NHS number
  • taking the caller's number and ringing them back, after checking the number is valid.

None of these systems are completely secure, however. If you are ever in doubt, or if you are asked to disclose particularly sensitive information, you may prefer to do that via a more secure medium than over the phone, such as in writing or by email.

Patient consent

Once you have established the identity of any third party seeking information about your patient, you'll need to take account of the patient's wishes.

If possible, find out from the patient with whom and in what circumstances information can be shared. The GMC reminds us that 'early discussions about the patient's wishes can help to avoid disclosures they might object to. Such discussions can also help avoid misunderstandings with, or causing offence or distress to, anyone the patient would want information to be shared with'.

If you are asked to disclose information without a patient's consent, you will need to consider this request carefully. Although there are situations where information may be provided in the public interest, these are rare and such disclosures need to be considered carefully, taking into account all the circumstances.

Seek advice from a senior colleague, your Caldicott Guardian or the MDU.

Speaking to colleagues, friends and family

The GMC reminds us that 'many improper disclosures are unintentional'.

  • If you need to discuss a case with your colleagues, do so in a place where you cannot be overheard.
  • Don't discuss confidential information with your friends or family.
  • Be wary of commenting on identifiable cases via social media, such as internet chat forums.

In summary

  • If the media enquire about a patient under your care, explain that you cannot comment because of your duty of confidentiality.
  • Ask patients with whom they would be happy to share information.
  • Don't release information to third parties unless you have consent or you can justify doing so; for example in the public interest.
  • Take steps to prevent unauthorised access to records.
  • Beware of inadvertent confidentiality breaches, such as discussing patients somewhere you can be overheard.
  • Don't share confidential information about patients with your friends or family, either in person or via social networking.

This page was correct at publication on 28/06/2018. 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.