One study suggested that patients immediately forget between 40 and 80% of the medical information provided by their doctor and almost half the information they do recall is incorrect.
To help ensure that they don't miss anything important, some patients are taking advantage of technology to record a consultation and watch it back later. Earlier this year, one consultant urologist told a national newspaper why he had no objection when a patient asked to record a consultation on his smartphone. "A lot of patients come in armed with a notepad, but if they are scribbling away they'll be so consumed with writing down what they hear that they might not understand what they're being told. In the case of the chap who filmed me, I was discussing the ramifications of various surgical options. There were facts, figures and side-effects to digest. By filming me, it meant he could do this in the comfort of his own home and weigh up the options at his own pace."
Patients who understand the risks and benefits of the different treatment options are usually able to make an informed decision about the treatment they want which makes life easier for them and their doctors.
The GMC expects doctors to obtain patients' consent to make a visual or audio recording and to only make covert recordings with appropriate legal authorisation "where there is no other way of obtaining information which is necessary to investigate or prosecute a serious crime, or to protect someone from serious harm".
But what if the patient starts recording you without seeking permission or even decides to record a consultation covertly, as has happened to a number of MDU members recently? Can you refuse and are their actions a sign that your professional relationship with them has irretrievably broken down?
Patients do not need their doctors' permission to tape a consultation as the information they are recording is personal to them and therefore exempt from data protection principles. Section 36 of the Data Protection Act 1998 states: "Personal data processed by an individual only for the purposes of that individual’s personal, family or household affairs (including recreational purposes) are exempt from the data protection principles and the provisions of Parts II and III".
If you suspect that a patient is covertly recording you, you may be upset by the intrusion but if you act in a professional manner at all times then it should not really pose a problem.
Your duty of care also means you would not be justified in refusing to continue to treat the patient. If you did, it could easily rebound on you and further damage your relationship with the patient. And remember that your refusal to continue with the consultation could be recorded.
A more pragmatic (and disarming) response would be invite the patient to record the consultation openly and ask them whether you can have a copy of the recording which can then become part of the patient's own medical records. In seeking their consent to this you should reassure them that the recording will be stored securely by the practice and only used for this purpose.
It's understandable to assume the worst when a patient tries to record your consultation but it would be a mistake to think they are trying to catch you out or that a complaint or claim will inevitably follow. If you are concerned that the patient's actions are a sign that they do not trust you, you may want to discuss this with them but recording a consultation is not itself sufficient reason to end your professional relationship with them.
Finally, bear in mind that while recordings (even those made covertly) can be admitted as evidence of wrongdoing by the GMC and in court, they can also prove the opposite. In other words, if you have acted ethically and professionally you should have no reason to be worried.
Members with specific concerns about recording consultations should contact our advice line on 0800 716646.
This guidance was correct at publication 28/11/2013. It 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.