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Providing patient information to the police – should or shouldn’t you?

16 December 2021 | Avant Media

You’re a trainee who has just started a night shift in a busy inner-city hospital, when the police come in asking for information about a patient. According to the police there are suspicious circumstances surrounding the patient’s injuries. You are not the treating doctor, you have no prior knowledge of the patient and there is no one else on duty who knows the patient.

So what should you do?

Our Medico-legal Advisory Service receives many calls from young doctors seeking advice about how to respond to requests for information to the police.

First and foremost, it’s important to remain helpful to the police, but not to breach the patient’s privacy or hospital policies. Disclosing patient information without the patient’s consent can land you in a lot of trouble. For example, in a case in 2015, the Commonwealth Privacy Commissioner ordered a general practitioner to apologise and pay $6,500 in compensation for breaching a patient’s privacy and providing information to the police.

It’s also important to understand that you do not have to provide patient information to the police unless you have the patient’s consent or the police have a warrant, subpoena or other legal order requiring disclosure of the information. It’s okay for you to ask the police to obtain the patient’s consent for the release of information.

The privacy legislation in various states recognises there may be situations that justify providing information to assist police in the investigation of a crime, without the patient's consent. You will need to ask questions of the police to understand the nature of their enquiry, and to consult the patient’s medical records to ensure accurate information is provided if appropriate. 

The medical records are owned by the hospital and should not be accessed, unless for clinical treatment, without first speaking to the relevant department in your hospital. 

Always refer to the hospital’s policy and consult your supervisor before releasing confidential patient information to anyone, including the police.

Any details of communication with police should be documented in the patient’s medical records.

More information

For medico-legal advice, contact us at nca@avant.org.au or on 1800 128 268, 24/7 in emergencies.

Our resources also support ongoing education to meet the ’ compliance obligation with the Australian Privacy Principles.

Watch our video on ‘Preparing a statement for the police.’

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