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Why are privacy and confidentiality important?

Health professionals are ethically obligated to protect patient confidentiality. The Code of the Australian Medical Association (AMA) provides that ‘exceptions to this [duty] must be taken very seriously. They may include where there is a serious risk to the patient or another person, where required by law, where part of approved research, or where there are overwhelming societal interests.’

The integrity of the health system relies on the protection of privacy and confidentiality because:

  • Patient autonomy requires that individuals be free to choose, except in certain limited circumstances (discussed below), who accesses information about their health;
  • People may be reluctant to seek medical attention if they fear their information could be disclosed to others. This ‘chilling effect’ could have implications for the future prevention, treatment and study of medical conditions;
  • A health system with strong privacy mechanisms will promote public confidence in healthcare services; and
  • Disclosure that individuals have tested for, or are living with, HIV/AIDS or other STIs can invite social stigma and discrimination.