GMC spells out when GPs should disclose patient data to third parties

GPs must be prepared to disclose confidential patient information in exceptional circumstances if required to by law, court order or 'in the context of public protection', according to updated GMC advice.

The GMC has updated its Confidentiality guidance for the first time in eight years. Core principles set out in the advice remain unchanged although some key points have been clarified, the regulator said. The amendments will take effect from April 2017.

Patients 'have a right to expect that their personal information wil be held in confidence by their doctors', the guidance warns. But it also highlights circumstances in which doctors should disclose this information to third parties.

It clarifies how data should be shared within multidisciplinary and multi-agency care systems for use in direct care, which can be done with the patient’s ‘explicit or implied consent’.

The responsibilities of doctors to protect the public are also emphasised, including advice on when GPs should disclose patient information to ‘protect individuals or society from risks of serious harm’.

Patient confidentiality

Preventing acts of crime or serious communicable disease are listed among examples of when this is appropriate.

The GMC advice also clarifies when to consider sharing a patient’s information with those close to them, such family or others who play a significant role in supporting or caring for them.

It advises early discussions with the patient to establish whether there is any information they would object to being disclosed to those close to them, or that they would welcome being shared – and in what circumstances. The patients’ wishes should be noted in their records, it says.

GMC chief executive Charlie Massey said: ‘This refreshed, revised and restructured guidance on confidentiality will help doctors better understand their responsibilities when handling patient information in their everyday practice.’

Dr Catherine Wills, deputy head of advisory services at medicolegal organisation the MDU, said: ‘Confidentiality is central to the relationship of trust between patients and doctors. Without assurances about confidentiality, patients may be reluctant to give doctors the information they need in order to provide good care.'

She warned that doctors should seek expert advice if they had doubts over sharing information when faced with requests or court orders relating to information about patients.

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