Confidentiality, consent and capacity

Your work in health care puts you in the privileged position of finding out a lot of information about the people you care for. You’ll learn about their health problems, their employment, their family, perhaps even their income. They will speak to you about things very close to them personally – sometimes they will talk about things they haven’t even discussed with their family. And you’ll be supporting them in some of the intimate aspects of daily life – washing, dressing and going to the toilet, for instance.

Patients/clients give us access to this privileged information and allow us to support them in intimate tasks on a clear condition and understanding: that we will not disclose anything we learn from them to anyone else UNLESS that person has a clear right to know – our colleagues in the health care team, for instance.

This – the principle of confidentiality – is what underpins the trust between patients/clients and health care workers. Breaching that trust by disclosing information about a patient/client to someone who has no right to the information is one of the most serious errors a health care worker can commit. It can lead to disciplinary proceedings and, if the individual is a registered practitioner, to formal professional misconduct hearings. It’s that serious.

So this section of the resource will try to help you understand your responsibilities around patient/client confidentiality. It will also help you to see that respecting confidentiality is actually not a difficult thing to do. It’s firmly rooted in respecting the people you care for as human beings – if you have that sense of respect and use it as the basis for your practice, breaching confidentiality will not be an issue for you.

The section will also look at consent, which is all about ensuring we have permission from patients/clients to carry out tasks with, for and on them, and capacity, which relates to a person’s ability to use and understand information to make a decision and either offer or refuse consent.

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