Issue 49 - Confidentiality – What’s the secret?
This very important area of veterinary practice is sometimes poorly understood yet it underpins everything we do as professionals. Confidentiality provides a significant foundation to the trust the public and our clients have in the veterinary profession.
Breaches of confidentiality may be subject to investigations by the Board and proceedings in the courts.
1. What does the veterinary practice legislation say about confidentiality?
i. The Veterinary Practice Act 2003 (Act) (s 55) states that:
(1) A veterinary practitioner must comply with a requirement under this Part to answer a question or to produce information or a document despite any duty of confidentiality in respect of a communication between the veterinary practitioner and a client (but only if the client is the complainant or consents to its disclosure).
(2) A veterinary practitioner may disclose a matter to the Board, a committee of the Board or the Tribunal in breach of any duty of confidentiality if the Board, committee or Tribunal is satisfied that it is necessary for the veterinary practitioner to do so to rebut an allegation in the complaint.
‘A requirement under this Part’ in paragraph (1) above refers to Part 5 of the Act, complaints and disciplinary proceedings.
In relation to a complaint investigation by the Board, if the client is the complainant, you must release records and other information to the Board when requested.
You may release records or disclose matters without client consent if it is necessary to do so to defend yourself against an allegation in a complaint.
ii. The Veterinary Practice Regulation 2013 (Regulation) schedule 2 Veterinary Practitioners Code of Professional Conduct (Code), clause 12 states that:
Except as otherwise required by this code of conduct, a veterinary practitioner must maintain the confidentiality of information obtained in the course of professional practice.
Clause 10 of this Code states that:
A veterinary practitioner who has previously treated an animal must, when requested to do so, and with the consent of the person responsible for the care of the animal, provide copies or originals of all relevant case history records directly to another veterinary practitioner who has taken over the treatment of the animal.
If another veterinarian requests the records for a patient that he or she is now caring for and has the consent of the person responsible for the care of that animal then you must release these records to that veterinarian.
The release of client information gained in the course of your professional activities in other circumstances is therefore likely to be viewed as a breach of client confidentiality under clause 12 of the Code. Exceptions however can be found from an examination of other legislation and circumstances below.
2. What about other legislation?
i. A subpoena is issued in connection with court proceedings and compels you to provide evidence. It specifies exactly what is required, nominates the court to which this must be delivered, and the date by which this information must be supplied.
If your medical records are included in a subpoena, the client has the right to appeal to the court against the release of these records. If you were to give the records to anyone else (e.g. police), you will deprive your client of that right.
If a court requires you to release specific client information you must do so.
ii. The other area of law that requires veterinarians to release information gained during the course of their professional practice is in relation to notifiable diseases in NSW declared under the Biosecurity Act 2015.
There is a legal obligation on veterinarians (and stock owners or managers) who know or suspect that an animal has a notifiable disease to notify the relevant authorities.
Finally, there are a few circumstances where you may but are not required to release client information such as medical records. For example:
i. Releasing information to your legal, insurance or other professional advisor who is assisting you to defend an allegation before a court, tribunal or the Veterinary Practitioners Board. That advisor has a duty of confidentiality to you.
ii. Releasing records to your client but remember consent is specific and release records only for the period when your client was the person responsible for the care of the animal concerned.
iii. Release of records with the consent of the client to a client’s animal insurance provider.
iv. Release of records to a racing steward upon request and in relation to an investigation where the trainer or person responsible for the care of the horse has provided a signed consent for the release of these records to the racing authorities. It would be prudent before releasing such records to confirm this permission with the client and ensure that you release only the relevant record for that specific horse.
As previously discussed in Boardtalk, medical records are the property either of the individual veterinarian or of the veterinary practice. Veterinarians working in a multi-person practice should also seek permission from the practice superintended before releasing medical records.
It is worthy of noting that veterinary practice legislation refers to ‘client’ and ‘person responsible for the care of the animal’ and not ‘owner’ in these matters.
In summary, there are a few circumstances where you must release information you have obtained in the course of your professional practice, a few circumstances when you may release this information, but otherwise you must maintain the confidentiality of information obtained in the course of your professional practice.
If you are unsure about what to do when confronted with issues of confidentiality it is prudent to seek independent legal advice.