Confidentiality refers to personal information that can't be divulged to a third party without consent from the client. This sort of information is handled by financial institutions, hospitals, doctors, therapists, law firms, businesses, and religious authorities. This differs from privacy, which refers to the freedom from intrusion into someone's personal information. While confidentiality is an ethical duty, privacy is rooted in common law.
When we say information is held in confidence, and therefore confidential, we expect that it will only be shared if authorization is given. Even then, we only ever think that it is shared with certain professionals.
The Need for Confidentiality
Any organisation that collects, analyses, or publishes confidential health and care information must follow the code of practice on confidential information. It clearly defines the steps that organisations must take to ensure that confidential information is handled correctly. The code helps organisations put the right structures in place so that staff follow the confidentiality rules. As a result, good practice guidance is available for those that are responsible for the handling of confidential information, such as board members.
The doctor-patient relationship establishes an implied code of confidentiality, since the doctor is in a position to help you by collecting and analysing private information. If a doctor were to ask a pharmacist to fill out a prescription for a patient, that wouldn't be a breach of confidentiality, but if the doctor told your boss about your condition, that would constitute a breach of their ethical duty to keep your information private.
The Health and Social Care Information Centre Guide for Confidentiality 2013
Health and social care is the sector that confidentiality is at its most important due to the private nature of the service. This code of confidentiality shows workers what they should be doing and why. It covers five main rules:
- Information about service users or patients should be treated with respect to maintain confidentiality.
- Members of a care team should share confidential information when needed for the safe and effective care of an individual.
- Information that is shared for the benefit of the community should be anonymised.
- An individual's right to object to the sharing of confidential information about them should be respected.
- Organisations should put policies, procedures and systems in place to ensure that confidentiality rules are followed.
The guide was produced to make the rules clearer to professionals, making everything a bit easier when it comes to the subject of confidentiality and knowing what they can and cannot do. However, decisions around sharing confidential information aren't always clean cut, and the guide takes this into account by enabling staff to use their professional judgement confidently, working in the best interest of the individual.
The Impact on You
The confidentiality guide is relevant to everyone. In England, more than a million people come into contact with the health and social care services, so the issue needs to be understood by everyone.
Unless patients understand how their information is being used and who sees it, they are remaining ignorant when they consent to treatment and care. The other side of the story means that the best standard of care cannot be provided if the staff members don't understand who they must share information with and when this sharing is expected.
Everyone using the health and social care services in the UK expect that the information they hand over is treated with the strictest confidence. This promise of confidentiality has been a focus for centuries in medical practice. Patients need to feel they can off-load all their information without worrying about where it might end up; without this trust, there is only a certain level of care that can be given.
Individuals need teams of professionals, both in health and social care, that are responsible for the information on patients. This can be knowing when to share the information too, in order to provide a seamless, integrated service, getting the best result for the individual in question.