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Practice dilemma: Dealing with a patient's data protection concerns

One of our patients is very concerned about data protection issues and doesn't want any of her information leaving the practice for any reason. She has asked us what steps we are taking to protect her information. What do we need to do to ensure we comply with her wishes and what should we tell her?

Dr Richenda Tisdale, medicolegal adviser at Medical Protection, advises:

Such requests regarding data protection can be challenging and dealing with them may be time consuming. However, by clearly providing the patient with information from the outset, potential complaints can be avoided further down the line.

Medical Protection has seen complaints regarding disclosure of information reported to the GMC and the Information Commissioner’s Office. In many cases these complaints could have been prevented by clear communication between the doctor and patient.

The first thing that you may wish to do is to sit down and explore the patient's concerns with her. If, for example, the patient has concerns regarding the sharing of specific sensitive information, this can be easily alleviated with a record of the patient's wishes in her notes. This should be apparent to anyone who may be involved in sharing of patient information.

It is important to take the time to explain to the patient how her confidentiality will be respected. Without assurance of confidentiality, she may not feel able to disclose all relevant information to her doctor which could jeopardise her care.

You should inform her that whilst all information will be kept in accordance with the requirements of the Data Protection Act 1998, additionally, doctors have a legal and ethical duty of confidence.

It would be equally important to explain to the patient the limitations and exceptions to the duty of confidence, including the circumstances in which her information may or will be shared. This includes statutory disclosures, court orders and disclosures in the public interest.

You may wish to distinguish between disclosures for which only anonymised data is provided versus patient identifiable ones. You can also explain to the patient which disclosures she can opt out of, and which she cannot.

Doctors have a duty to ensure that their patients are informed about how their information may be shared and it is advisable to review this information and how it is disseminated on a regular basis. This may include posters in the surgery waiting room, information provided on registration and on the practice website.

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