"The special place of confidentiality in the physician-patient relationship" Discussed by BC Court of Appeal


In reasons for judgement released this week the BC Court of Appeal discussed physician patient confidentiality and the limited basis for disrupting this.
In this week’s case (Logan v. Hong) the Plaintiff was advancing a class action for damages on behalf of  “all persons who were injected with Dermalive in Canada and who thereafter developed granulomas in the area injected with Dermalive.”   The Plaintiff proposed to notify the class members by direct mail.   Mr. Justice Sewell agreed this was appropriate and ordered various physicians to provide the information concerning these patients to counsel for the plaintiff.
The Court of Appeal overturned this order finding it would unduly interfere with doctor/patient confidentiality.  In doing so the BC Court of Appeal provided the following reasons:
[11]         Laudable as the plaintiff’s intention may be to seek redress for persons who may have a claim to compensation for deleterious consequences from this medical treatment, such generous intention does not justify, in my view, the invasion of privacy that is inherent in dipping into the physician-patient relationship to discover the names, addresses, and contact information of persons who received this treatment. Each patient is entitled to maintenance of the confidentiality implicit in his or her attendance in a physician’s examining room and protection of his or her privacy on a personal matter, absent serious concerns relating to health or safety, or express legislative provisions compelling release of the information in the public interest. In my view, the judge erred in principle by elevating the purposes of the Class Proceedings Act and the search for legal redress above the fundamental principle of confidentiality that adheres, for the benefit of the community, to the physician-patient relationship…
[13]         The special place of confidentiality in the physician-patient relationship is of long standing. In Halls v. Mitchell, [1928] S.C.R. 125, the Supreme Court of Canada commented upon the duty of secrecy owed to a patient, affirming that the patient’s right of confidentiality is superseded only by issues of paramount importance. Mr. Justice Duff, for the majority, described this principle at 136:
We are not required, for the purposes of this appeal, to attempt to state with any sort of precision the limits of the obligation of secrecy which rests upon the medical practitioner in relation to professional secrets acquired by him in the course of his practice. Nobody would dispute that a secret so acquired is the secret of the patient, and, normally, is under his control, and not under that of the doctor. Prima facie, the patient has the right to require that the secret shall not be divulged; and that right is absolute, unless there is some paramount reason which overrides it. Such reasons may arise, no doubt, from the existence of facts which bring into play overpowering considerations connected with public justice; and there may be cases in which reasons connected with the safety of individuals or of the public, physical or moral, would be sufficiently cogent to supersede or qualify the obligations prima facie imposed by the confidential relation.
                                                                                    [Emphasis added.]
[14]         And, at 138:
It is, perhaps, not easy to exaggerate the value attached by the community as a whole to the existence of a competently trained and honourable medical profession; and it is just as important that patients, in consulting a physician, shall feel that they may impart the facts touching their bodily health, without fear that their confidence may be abused to their disadvantage. …
                                                                                    [Emphasis added.]
[15]         More recently, the Supreme Court of Canada, referring to Halls, restated the significance of confidentiality to the physician-patient relationship in McInerney v. MacDonald, [1992] 2 S.C.R. 138, 93 D.L.R. (4th) 415, discussing at 148 a patient’s right to access to medical records:
When a patient approaches a physician for health care, he or she discloses sensitive information concerning personal aspects of his or her life. The patient may also bring into the relationship information relating to work done by other medical professionals. The policy statement of the Canadian Medical Association cited earlier indicates that a physician cannot obtain access to this information without the patient’s consent or a court order. Thus, at least in part, medical records contain information about the patient revealed by the patient, and information that is acquired and recorded on behalf of the patient. Of primary significance is the fact that the records consist of information that is highly private and personal to the individual. It is information that goes to the personal integrity and autonomy of the patient. As counsel for the respondent put it in oral argument: “[The respondent] wanted access to information on her body, the body of Mrs. MacDonald.” In R. v. Dyment, [1988] 2 S.C.R. 417, at p. 429, I noted that such information remains in a fundamental sense one’s own, for the individual to communicate or retain as he or she sees fit. Support for this view can be found in Halls v. Mitchell, [1928] S.C.R. 125, at p. 136. There Duff J. held that professional secrets acquired from a patient by a physician in the course of his or her practice are the patient’s secrets and, normally, are under the patient’s control. In sum, an individual may decide to make personal information available to others to obtain certain benefits such as medical advice and treatment. Nevertheless, as stated in the report of the Task Force on Privacy and Computers (1972), at p. 14, he or she has a “basic and continuing interest in what happens to this information, and in controlling access to it.”
                                                                                    [Emphasis added.]
[16]         Whether referred to as secrecy, personal autonomy, confidentiality, or privacy, the patient’s interest in protecting information of his or her medical treatment is reflected in the Code of Ethics of the Canadian Medical Association under the heading Fundamental Responsibilities:
Privacy and Confidentiality
31. Protect the personal heath information of your patients.

35. Disclose your patients’ personal health information to third parties only with their consent, or as provided for by law, such as when the maintenance of confidentiality would result in a significant risk of substantial harm to others or, in the case of incompetent patients, to the patients themselves. In such cases take all reasonable steps to inform the patients that the usual requirements for confidentiality will be breached…
[25]         I conclude that, giving full weight to the principle of privacy and confidentiality inherent in the physician-patient relationship, the limited circumstances that call for breaching the patients’ privacy are not present here.

Duty of Confidentiality, Logan v. Hong, physician confidentiality, privacy

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When not writing the BC Injury Law Blog, Erik is the managing partner at MacIsaac & Company, based in Victoria, B.C. He is also involved with combative sports regulatory issues and authors the Combat Sports Law Blog.

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