When people seek medical attention, it’s generally frowned-upon for medical professionals to share their confidential health information with anyone. In fact, in most cases it’s illegal. Doctors and other medical professionals can cite doctor-patient confidentiality to avoid providing patient information to police, or even as evidence in court -- and that’s good public policy. In order for people to feel comfortable seeking the medical attention they need, doctors and hospitals must be save places to do so.
Unfortunately, there may be little patients can do when medical professionals voluntarily provide patient information to the police. That appears to be what happened to a Mason City man who is now facing up to 10 years in prison for felony drug possession as a result.
In August, the 19-year-old was reportedly enjoying a trip to Float Rite Park, an inner-tubing destination on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border, when he became unconscious. He was taken to a hospital in Stillwater, Minnesota, for a suspected drug overdose.
When a nurse noticed a white powder around one of his nostrils, the hospital staff was apparently eager to assist law enforcement -- at the expense of their patient’s privacy. They searched the young man and discovered two small bindles that seemed suspicious, and they apparently had no qualms about calling police.
According to a criminal complaint, the Hudson Patch reports, one of the small packages tested positive for methamphetamine; the other for cocaine. When the young man was discharged from the hospital, a police officer confronted him and he admitted the controlled substances were his.
He is now charged with two felony counts of drug possession, each with a potential sentence of five years plus a $10,000 fine, if he has no prior convictions. He was expected in court on Nov 21, but press reports did not cover the resolution of his case.
Whatever we think of the underlying offense, these events raise a serious issue. Medical ethics prohibit doctors from sharing patients’ confidential information without their consent, except in extremely limited circumstances, such as in cases of child abuse or when patient pose an imminent threat to themselves or others.
In this case, the issue likely won’t arise because of the young man’s admission to police. However, no medical professional should lightly breach doctor-patient confidentiality, or risk permanent harm to something we value more than any individual criminal case.
- Hudson Patch, "Discharged from Hospital, Then Charged with Having Meth, Cocaine," Chris Steller, Nov. 19, 2013
- University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine, "Confidentiality and Duty to Report," retrieved Nov. 27, 2013