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Physician-patient privilege

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Definition Edit

The physician-patient privilege is a legal concept, related to medical confidentiality, that protects communications between a patient and his or her doctor from being used against the patient in court. It is a part of the rules of evidence in many common law jurisdictions. Almost every jurisdiction that recognizes the physician-patient privilege, either by statute or though case law, limits the privilege to knowledge acquired during the course of providing medical services. In some jurisdictions, conversations between a patient and physician may be privileged in both criminal and civil courts.

Overview Edit

The privilege may cover the situation where a patient confesses to a psychiatrist that he or she committed a particular crime. It may also cover normal inquiries regarding matters such as injuries that may result in civil action. For example, any defendant that the patient may be suing at the time cannot ask the doctor if the patient ever expressed the belief that his or her condition had improved. However, the rule generally does not apply to confidences shared with physicians when they are not serving in the role of medical providers.

The rationale behind the rule is that a level of trust must exist between a physician and the patient so that the physician can properly treat the patient. If the patient were fearful of telling the truth to the physician because he or she believed the physician would report such behavior to the authorities, the treatment process could be rendered far more difficult, or the physician could make an incorrect diagnosis.

For example, if a patient who is below the age of consent comes to a doctor with a sexually transmitted disease, the doctor usually would be required to obtain a list of the patient's sexual contacts to inform them that they need treatment. This is an important health concern. However, the patient may be reluctant to divulge the names of his/her older sexual partners, for fear that they will be charged with statutory rape. In some jurisdictions, the doctor cannot be forced to reveal the information disclosed by his patient to anyone except to organizations specified by law, and they too are required to keep that information confidential. If, in such a case, the police become aware of such information, they are not allowed to use it in court as proof of the sexual conduct, except as provided by the express intent of the legislature and formalized into law.[1]

United States Edit

In the United States, the Federal Rules of Evidence do not recognize the doctor-patient privilege.

At the state level, the extent of the privilege varies depending on the law of the applicable jurisdiction. For example, in Texas there is only a limited physician-patient privilege in civil and criminal proceedings.[2]

References Edit

  1. American/English Encyclopedia of the Law 611, ¶27 (8th ed.).
  2. Texas Occupations Code §159.003 and Texas Rules of Evidence, Rule 509(b).


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