During your medical career, you may be involved in treating well-known people. They might be celebrities or have been involved in an incident that captures the public attention.
Regardless of why they are in the public eye, 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 should be familiar with the concept that doctors have a duty of confidentiality to patients. If you stand firmly by the line that you can't comment because of this, they will generally stop asking questions.
MDU members can also seek advice from our press office, and our highly experienced team can help guide you through the complexities of dealing with the media if the press come calling.
Enquiries about patients
We've been made aware of situations where people trying to get information about a patient might pose as legitimate enquirers, such as a family member.
If you're contacted by someone who says they're a close relative of a patient, take the necessary steps to check they are who they claim to be. Your trust may have a policy about this which you should follow, which might include:
- asking the enquirer a set of questions to check and confirm their identity
- if taking a call from someone claiming to be a GP, you could check that they know the patient's NHS number
- if receiving a phone call, taking the caller's number and ringing them back, after checking the number is valid.
Unfortunately, none of these systems are completely secure. If you're ever in doubt, or if you're asked to disclose particularly sensitive information, you may prefer to do so via a more secure medium than over the phone, such as in writing or by email.
Once you've established the identity of any third party asking for 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're asked to disclose information without a patient's consent, you'll need to consider this request carefully. Although there are situations where information may can be provided in the public interest, these are rare. Such disclosures need to be approached with diligence and caution, taking into account all the circumstances.
For more information, read our guide on disclosure to third parties.
Seek advice from a senior colleague, your Caldicott guardian or the MDU.
Speaking to colleagues, friends and family
The GMC says 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.
- If you get a media enquiry about a patient under your care, explain that you can't comment because of your duty of confidentiality.
- Ask patients who they would be happy to share information with.
- 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 remotely (such as online).
This page was correct at publication on 03/11/2022. 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.