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patient confidentiality erosion? do clinicians have a duty to disclose genetic information to offspring?

7 June 2017
Anyone working in healthcare is aware of the legal and ethical quandaries of patient confidentiality and ‘when should I breach confidentiality?’ ABC v (1) St George’s Healthcare NHS Trust (2) South West London and St George’s Mental Health NHS Trust (3) Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust may lead to significant changes to confidentiality duties.

In 2015, a judge struck out a claim that clinicians owed a duty of care to the daughter of a patient diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease on the basis that the claim lacked merit. In 2017, on appeal, the court determined that the daughter’s claims were not unarguable and that more detailed consideration was required.

The tragic facts are that the claimant’s father, convicted for the manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility of her mother, was diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease around the same time that she became pregnant. The clinicians chose to maintain confidentiality and the claimant was subsequently diagnosed with the disease. She argued that had she known this she would have terminated the pregnancy rather than risk passing it on and leaving a child dependent on an ill single parent.

The judgment makes for interesting reading and whilst this case does not change the law, it does demonstrate that the court is willing to tackle the thorny issue of confidentiality vs a competing overriding interest. It will be interesting to see what extent the court balances the legitimate concerns of clinicians regarding floodgates, practical limitations and the potential for undermining patient confidence in the doctor-patient relationship. Watch this space…

The General Medical Council (GMC) has recently revised its guidance on confidentiality and if you would like to discuss this, or the potential implications of this case, please get in touch.

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