Hot topic: Sharing information with patients’ friends and families

December 2015

Confidentiality friends and family“My patient is unconscious following an accident. What can I tell her husband about her condition? And what about the rest of the family, who’ve been telephoning for news?

“My patient’s daughter wants to meet me discuss her concerns about her father’s mental health – would this be a breach of confidentiality?”

These are some of the questions we’ve been hearing in relation to patient confidentiality and sharing information with patients’ friends and families.

We are currently reviewing our Confidentiality guidance. At the start of the review, we ran a short survey to identify areas where doctors wanted more, or different, advice.

The responses to the survey indicated that one of the more regular challenges doctors faced in practice is discussing information about a patient with their relatives, carers and others close to them. Doctors who raised this issue told us that in particular, difficulties can arise when:

  • A patient who is acutely unwell cannot indicate what they would be happy for the doctor to discuss with which family members - this can lead to complaints later that either too much information was disclosed, or that the family were not kept fully informed.
  • There is disagreement between a patient’s family members about who should be told what about the condition and treatment, and the patient him or herself lacks capacity to decide.
  • Someone close to a patient wishes to share concerns about the patient’s condition – it can be difficult for doctors to know whether to agree to have the conversation, particularly if the patient has asked them not to speak to that individual.

In the light of this feedback, we’ve been looking at the advice we give on this topic to see how we can ensure that it is clear, helpful and relevant to doctors’ needs.

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