Privacy and Confidentiality

  • Jean F. Martin
Reference work entry


Confidentiality is an age-old feature of health care, particularly in the Western tradition: what is said or done within the therapeutic encounter should remain between patient and provider. In modern times, medical confidentiality has been regulated either by deontological rules, in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, or by public law (Criminal Code), as with the French “secret médical.” A third orientation is now to see confidentiality as a dimension of human rights (public health in general is going in this direction). Confidentiality has as its first goal protecting the interests of the patient: the patient is the master/ruler of that “secrecy”; that is, he or she decides freely whether to disclose whatever data related to his or her health or treatment, how and when. In most legal systems and in addition to the duty to inform spontaneously and completely the patient, the provider cannot refuse to transmit medical data to others if the patient requests it.

The emphasis on respect of the patient’s privacy is relatively new, flowing from the dignity recognized in all human beings. For centuries, medical practice was marked by paternalism, sometimes authoritarian and not likely to welcome criticisms or refusal of care. Until recently, the patient’s privacy was often, practically, a minor concern of care providers. Today, biomedical (e.g., in genetics, communicable diseases) and social developments give rise to delicate questions in terms of an individual’s privacy and his or her responsibility regarding possible impacts on the health and welfare of others and the community. To be kept in mind are issues about the right of providers to have their privacy respected.


Huntington Disease Criminal Code Democratic Legitimacy Hippocratic Oath Diseased Person 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


  1. Council of Europe. (1997). Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Dignity of the Human Being with regard to the Application of Biology and Medicine: Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine. Adopted at Oviedo on 4 April 1997.Google Scholar
  2. Hébert, P. C. (1996). Doing right (A practical guide to ethics for medical trainees and physicians). Toronto/Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Hoerni, B., & Bénézech, M. (1996). Le secret médical – Confidentialité et discrétion en médecine. Paris: Masson.Google Scholar
  4. International Bioethics Committee of UNESCO (IBC). (2008). Report on consent. Paris: UNESCO.Google Scholar
  5. Martin, J. F. (2009). Persons without the capacity to consent (chapter 9). In H. ten Have & M. Jean (Eds.), The UNESCO Universal declaration on bioethics and human rights – background, principles and applications (Ethics series), p. 139–153. UNESCO Publishing.Google Scholar
  6. Martin, J., & Guillod, O. (2000). Medical confidentiality Which attitude by the professional when outside institutions or persons ask for information about a patient ? [in French]. Schweiz. Aerztezeitung/Bulletin des médecins suisses, 81, 2047–2052.Google Scholar
  7. Morais, Y. (2001). Secret médical (Medical confidentiality). In G. Hottois & J.-N. Missa (Eds.), Nouvelle encyclopédie de bioéthique (pp. 725–729). Bruxelles: De Boeck Université.Google Scholar
  8. Stiennon, J. A. (2009). Privacy and confidentiality (chapter 11). In H. ten Have & M. Jean (Eds.), The UNESCO Universal declaration on bioethics and human rights – background, principles and applications (Ethics series), p. 165–171. UNESCO.Google Scholar
  9. ten Have, H., & Jean, M. (Eds.) (2009). The UNESCO universal declaration on bioethics and human rights – Background, principles and applications (Ethics series). Paris: UNESCO.Google Scholar
  10. UNESCO. (1997). Universal declaration on the human genome and human rights. Adopted unanimously by the UNESCO General Conference on 11 November 1997.Google Scholar
  11. UNESCO. (2005a). Explanatory memorandum on the elaboration of the preliminary draft declaration on universal norms in bioethics. Paris: UNESCO.Google Scholar
  12. UNESCO. (2005b). Universal declaration on bioethics and human rights. Adopted unanimously by the UNESCO General Conference on 19 October 2005.Google Scholar
  13. UNESCO Ethics Education Programme. (2011a). Casebook on human dignity and human rights (Casebook series, No. 1). Paris: UNESCO.Google Scholar
  14. UNESCO Ethics Education Programme. (2011b). Casebook on benefit and harm (Casebook series, No. 2). Paris: UNESCO.Google Scholar
  15. Vaud (Canton of Vaud, Switzerland). (2002). Law on public health (in French). Article 80a, modification of March 19, 2002.Google Scholar
  16. WHO. (1995). Promotion of the rights of patients in Europe. The Hague: Kluwer Law International.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Privat-Docent à l’Université de LausanneMembre de la Commission nationale suisse d’éthiqueEchandensSwitzerland

Personalised recommendations