Confidentiality in health and social care: how is it ensured?

Oct 23, 2018

What is confidentiality?

Confidentiality means respecting someone’s privacy, and abstaining from sharing personal or potentially sensitive information about an individual, especially if that information has been shared in confidence.

In the context of health and social care, patient confidentiality is an important principle of providing good care which medical professionals and care practitioners should follow. It means not disclosing information about a patient or client to anyone who should not know or does not strictly need to know, unless consent has been given.

It is of course vital to protect the rights of client where appropriate, but health and social care workers and clients alike should bear in mind that a carer’s duty to share information – where required – is of equal importance.

Confidentiality legislation in health and social care

Health and social care providers are given extensive training regarding what is appropriate in regards to confidentiality, but to outsiders, it can be difficult to know what legislation is in place and how it is implemented.

There are five rules of confidentiality in health and social care:

  1. All confidential information about a client should be treated respectfully and their rights to confidentiality should be respected at all times
  2. Confidential information about a client should be shared by a care team only when it is necessary for the safety and wellbeing of the client
  3. Any confidential information shared for the benefit of a community should remain anonymous
  4. An individual has the right to object to their confidential information being shared. This right should always be respected
  5. It is an organisation’s responsibility to implement confidentiality policies with any procedures necessary to ensure this confidentiality

The 2013 HSCIC Guide to Confidentiality provides detailed information on navigating the complexities of confidentiality legislation as a health and social care worker.

How is confidentiality maintained in health and social care

Confidentiality in health and social care is essential because it helps patients and clients have confidence that they can share information, and this can be extremely important in ensuring they get the care they need. Maintaining confidentiality is therefore vital for medical professionals and care staff so that they can do their important work.

Maintaining confidentiality in medical and social care settings can involve simple practical measures such as positioning computer screens so that information isn’t accidentally seen by third parties, as well as following official guidelines in sensitive and complex situations. Those working in the health and social care sector have legal and professional responsibilities to uphold confidentiality, and will have to undergo significant training on the subject. Day to day maintaining of confidentiality means:

  • Ensuring that sensitive conversations are only held in private spaces
  • Recording and accessing only necessary and relevant information
  • Changing log-ins and passwords necessary and keeping security measures and programs up to date for IT systems
  • Reporting any possible data breaches immediately
  • Always alerting patients or clients when their information needs to be shared, and obtain consent where necessary

When can you break confidentiality in health and social care?

There is no absolute confidentiality in health and social care. This is due to the fact that breaking confidentiality is sometimes in the best interests of the client, or in the best interests of another party whose needs are more important than those of the client in the present situation.

For example, health and social care practitioners may need to discuss a client’s symptoms with a fellow practitioner in order to ensure that they receive optimum support. This includes referring a client to another service that may be better suited to their needs.

Care workers can also break confidentiality if they suspect an individual is going to seriously harm themselves or someone else. This does not generally include self-harm or drug use unless the practitioner thinks that the client might harm themselves in a life-threatening way by mistake, or the client does not have full mental capacity.

Another situation in which it is appropriate for a care worker to break confidentiality is if they suspect that their client is going to commit a criminal act – this is a rule of health and social care practice with which many people are familiar. Again, this does not typically refer to drug use unless the individual in question is supplying.

In extreme situations, a health and social care worker may also need to reveal information about their client in court if called upon to do so.

At ENA our team are experts in confidentiality in health and social care. If you need any help or advice on matters of confidentiality, or about our specialist care services, please get in touch and we’ll be happy to advise you.