Doctors breaching patient privacy: Orwell redux

David J Handelsman, Leo A Turner and Ann J Conway
Med J Aust 2011; 194 (8): . || doi: 10.5694/j.1326-5377.2011.tb03030.x
Published online: 18 April 2011

Legislative changes made without public discussion allow disclosure without patient consent

Of all the ethical principles underlying medical practice, confidentiality is so fundamental that its breach is an illegal, high-order betrayal of responsibility. Disclosing personal medical information without consent profoundly violates the autonomy, beneficence and privacy that patients have always rightly expected.1 Although disclosure without consent has only rarely been necessitated by an urgent threat to life or health, two recent legal erosions of doctor–patient confidentiality illustrate how privacy-invading legislation can so easily and silently harm individuals who do not form sufficiently clamorous rights-demanding groups. In one, a state government directs that private medical records be lodged in an Orwellian sounding “Central Register” without regard for the individual’s knowledge, and risking privacy breaches by seeking consent for disclosure to third parties. The other permits disclosures of a patient’s medical information against their wishes even without any urgent threat to the life or health of another person. Both represent unreasonable intrusions on privacy and erosion of personal liberty.

  • David J Handelsman1
  • Leo A Turner2
  • Ann J Conway3

  • ANZAC Research Institute, Concord Hospital, Sydney, NSW.


Competing interests:

None identified.


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