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What are disclosures in the public interest?

Maintaining confidentiality is in the public interest as, without it, patients may withhold information from their doctors or even choose not to access health services at all.

However, confidentiality is not absolute. There are circumstances in which disclosing information without consent can be justified, for example if others are at risk of death or serious harm. This is a judgement that can only be made on the specific facts of an individual case.

In the guidance we advise that a disclosure in the public interest is only likely to be justified if the benefits to an individual or society arising from the disclosure outweigh both the patient’s and the public interest in keeping the information confidential.

We list the factors that doctors must take into account when deciding whether or not to disclose information in the public interest. These include:

  • the potential harm or distress to the patient arising from the disclosure
  • the potential harm to trust in doctors generally
  • the potential harm to others if the information is not disclosed.

You can find more detailed guidance at paragraphs 63 to 70 of Confidentiality.