J Med Ethics 31:531-535 doi:10.1136/jme.2004.010157
  • Law, ethics, and medicine

Balancing confidentiality and the information provided to families of patients in primary care

  1. M D Pérez-Cárceles1,
  2. J E Pereñiguez2,
  3. E Osuna1,
  4. A Luna1
  1. 1Department of Legal and Forensic Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Murcia, Murcia, Spain
  2. 2Health Center in Espinardo, Murcia, Spain
  1. Correspondence to:
 M D Pérez-Cárceles
 Department of Legal and Forensic Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Murcia, E-30100 Espinardo, Murcia, Spain;
  • Received 26 July 2004
  • Accepted 15 November 2004
  • Revised 11 November 2004


Background: Medical confidentiality underpins the doctor–patient relationship and ensures privacy so that intimate information can be exchanged to improve, preserve, and protect the health of the patient. The right to information applies to the patient alone, and, only if expressly desired, can it be extended to family members. However, it must be remembered that one of the primary tenets of family medicine is precisely that patient care occurs ideally within the context of the family. There may be, then, certain occasions when difficulties will arise as to the extent of the information provided to family members.

Objectives: This study aimed to describe family doctors’ attitudes to confidentiality and providing patient information to relatives as well as their justifications for sharing information.

Method: A descriptive postal questionnaire was self-administered by family doctors.

Results: Of 227 doctors, 95.1% provided information to a patient’s family and over a third (35%) disclosed information to others without prior patient consent.

Conclusions: The findings reveal that family doctors should pay more attention to their patients’ rights to information, privacy, and confidentiality, and reflect very carefully on the fine balance between this and the occasional need for the support and collaboration of family members in delivery of care. Emphasis should be placed on ethics and legal problems during undergraduate education and in-service training of doctors.