Medical advancements mean there’s now a much greater understanding of how conditions are spread from person to person – and while treatment is also progressing, there are still many conditions that can’t be cured. This leaves professionals with a dilemma – when they know that a partner of a patient is at risk of a condition, should they inform them?
Of course, patient-doctor confidentiality in the UK legally and ethically sets out a medical professional’s responsibility to protect a patient’s personal information from improper disclosure. However, under certain circumstances, doctors may be obliged to disclose information about a patient even when their consent hasn’t been given. When it comes to communicable diseases, such as HIV, and a patient refuses to allow the information to be passed outside the healthcare team their wishes much be respected unless you consider that failure to disclose the information will put healthcare workers or other patients at risk of infection.
This ambiguity in the rules can make it challenging for professionals to weigh up what to do in these situations, with their own judgement potentially being called into question. So, should doctors ever inform partners of potential health risks?
Yes: Partners should be informed
The argument for informing partners centres on a wider duty of care. Failing to tell a person, for example, that their partner has tested HIV+ puts them at significant risk, which is a contradiction to the role of a medical professional. Those in support of disclosing this type of information to partners will note that failing to do so means that the infection is more likely to spread. Of course, talking to the patient in questions, and encouraging them to discuss their condition with their partner, is the first course of action.
No: Partners should not be informed
Those that are against doctors disclosing medical conditions to partners tend to focus on the need for trust to be built between professional and patient, of which confidentiality is vitally important. Disclosing information when this has been refused by the patient can cause a serious breakdown in communication, trust, and future treatment for the condition. It can, as a result, cause further harm to the patient that is facing the disease.
What’s your view on revealing certain conditions to partners of the patient? Share your views with us.