The police ask about my patient

Business Dilemmas.

Dr Kathryn Leask

Dr Kathryn Leask explains how to respond to a request for information from the police.





Dilemma 1

Must I hand over my patient data?

QI am a private GP who has recently received a court order from the police in relation to one of my patients.

I have been asked to provide the police with a copy of the patient’s medical records, particularly sections that relate to the patient’s mental health. 

The police have stated that this is in conjunction with a serious crime. However, I’ve not obtained the consent of the patient. Should I comply with the patient’s request? 

ADisclosing patient information without consent can only be justified in limited circumstances. 

Even if a request is from the police, your legal and ethical duties of confidentiality still apply. However, paragraph 17 the GMC’s confidentiality guidance states that ‘You must disclose information if it is required by statute or if ordered to by a judge or presiding officer of the court’. 

Be aware, that often a court will not ordinarily order the disclosure of medical records where criminal proceedings have not yet begun. 

Furthermore, paragraphs 90-95 of the confidentiality guidance explains that doctors should only disclose the information that is required by the court and that you should object if attempts are made to compel you to disclose information that appears to you to be irrelevant. 

Also, if the information requested includes details that may put someone at risk of harm, then it is imperative that the judge is informed.

Inform the patient 

You also have a duty to tell the patient whose information is being requested what information you will disclose unless this is not practicable, or it would undermine the purpose of the disclosure, or you feel that doing so might put yourself or others at risk of serious harm.

There are other examples in which you would be legally required to disclose information to the police. For examples: 

 The Road Traffic Act 1988 allows the police, under certain circumstances, to require information from anyone, which may lead to the identification of a driver alleged to have committed a road traffic offence. It is an offence to fail to comply.

 Under the Terrorism Act 2000 it is an offence not to disclose as soon as reasonably practicable information which you believe might be of ‘material assistance’ in preventing an act of terrorism or in apprehending a person who has committed, has prepared or has instigated an act of terrorism.

 If you discover an act of female genital mutilation (FGM) which appears to have been carried out on a girl under the age of 18 in England and Wales.   

Additionally, the GMC also says you ‘must participate in procedures set up to protect the public from violent and sex offenders, such as multi-agency public protection arrangements (MAPPA) in England, Wales and Scotland and public protection arrangements in Northern Ireland (PPANI)’.  

Finally, seek advice from your medical defence organisation if you have any questions or concerns when potentially disclosing information to the police. We also recommend that you seek advice before acting on a court order, to ensure it is valid. 

Dr Kathryn Leask is a medico-legal adviser at the Medical Defence Union

When journalists call

Dr Kathryn Leask

A consultant is asked for a comment by the press following a patient’s death. Dr Kathryn Leask discusses what she should do.





Dilemma 2

Should I speak to this reporter?

QI’m a private consultant medical oncologist who has been contacted by a journalist at a national newspaper asking for a comment in response to claims made by the family of a recently deceased patient into the quality and appropriateness of treatment their relative received. What should I do? 

AThe increase in press articles about alleged medical wrongdoings can make being contacted by a journalist a daunting experience. 

If a journalist contacts you, remember to stay calm and politely ask them to leave their name, contact details and the name of the organisation they work for, stating that you will respond to them later. 

Most journalists will be happy with this and it allows you time to gather your thoughts and prepare a response. 

If relevant, you may also wish to discuss this with your colleagues if you are in a practice or private hospital.

In Confidentiality: responding to criticism in the media, the GMC states that ‘you must not put information you have learned in confidence about a patient in the public domain without that patient’s explicit consent. You should usually limit your public response to an explanation of your legal and professional duty of confidentiality’.

Duty of confidentiality

While it may be tempting to respond, medical professionals must always consider the duty of confidentiality to a patient regardless of whether a patient or their loved-ones make any comments in either traditional or on social media. 

The GMC supports this when it says: ‘Disputes between patients and doctors conducted in public can also prolong or intensify conflict and may undermine public confidence in the profession.’ 

It is always best to say as little as possible. The more you say, the more chance there is for it to be interpreted negatively.

Consequently, a short, yet appropriate response is: ‘Due to patient confidentiality, I am unable to comment on this matter.’ 

Ideally, and if possible, it is preferable to put this response in an email to the journalist, as it ensures you and, where appropriate your colleagues, have a written record which can be referred to if needed. 

Sending a response via email also prevents a journalist asking for a comment ‘off the record’. 

This is to be avoided, as there is nothing to prevent a journalist from using this information. It is good practice to assume that anything said to a journalist will be used and never to say anything that deviates from the planned response.

Usually, press interest in a story will be short-lived, only lasting for a day or two. Despite its short lifespan, attention from the media can be stressful for you. 

As such, it is wise to contact your medico-defence organisation whose press office will be able to advise you further.

Dr Kathryn Leask is a medico-legal adviser at the Medical Defence Union