Can My Doctor Keep a Secret?

31 MAY 2021


Most of us would agree that holding back information from medical professionals is probably not usually in our best interests. Certainly, the more relevant information a doctor has about us the more likely that the treatment provided will be appropriate and hopefully successful.

In a recent decision of the NSW Civil & Administrative Tribunal the members considered, amongst other things, whether a practitioner was guilty of unsatisfactory professional conduct by disclosing confidential patient information to another patient.

The background to the complaint was that patient J and patient K had recently separated as husband and wife. Patient J had consulted with the practitioner and disclosed to her details of an extramarital affair. Two days later patient K attended a consultation with the same practitioner during which the practitioner disclosed the extramarital affair to patient K. This was disclosed without patient J’s prior knowledge or consent, in the absence of a proper therapeutically clinical reason or a legal or public interest for doing so.

The Tribunal referred to a publication entitled “Good Medical Practice: a Code of Conduct for Doctors in Australia” published by the Medical Board of Australia which requires, “that doctors and their staff will hold information about them (patients) in confidence unless release of information is required by law or public interest considerations”. The practitioner stated that she was more concerned about patient K either self harming or harming her husband or the third party and thought that she would reduce that risk by telling the patient that her husband was unsure whether he wished to return to the relationship.

The Tribunal found that in disclosing the information the practitioner’s conduct had breached the code and she was found guilty of unsatisfactory professional conduct.

Whilst there certainly are circumstances in which information which would be considered confidential can be disclosed, for example a sexual partner being diagnosed with HIV, the default setting, without more, is that information communicated to a medical practitioner by a patient is to be held confidential.


The contents of this publication are for reference purposes only. This publication does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as legal advice. Specific legal advice should always be sought separately before taking any action based on this publication.

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