Disclosing confidential information
About this guidance and how it applies to you
- We have produced this guidance to help our registrants in situations where they need to consider the professional requirement to maintain confidentiality alongside the need to ensure protection of patients and the public. Registrants have told us that this can be complex and confusing. Our research has shown us that particularly in relation to where a patient may not be fit to drive, registrants are not clear about what they should do in response 1 and therefore this document primarily focuses on such situations. It does not create new requirements or give legal advice.
- This guidance should be read alongside the Standards of Practice for Optometrists and Dispensing Opticians, which all optometrists and dispensing opticians must apply to their practice. For student optometrists and student dispensing opticians, this guidance should be read alongside the Standards for Optical Students. Both will be referred to as the ‘Standards’ in this document for ease of reading.
- The standard of confidentiality expected of registrants is set out in Standard 14 of the Standards of Practice (Standard 13 of Standards for Optical Students). This states the following:
Standard 14. Maintain confidentiality and respect your patients’ privacy
14.1 Keep confidential all information about patients in compliance with the law, including information which is handwritten, digital, visual, audio or retained in your memory.
14.2 Ensure that all staff you employ or are responsible for, are aware of their obligations in relation to maintaining confidentiality.
14.3 Maintain confidentiality when communicating publicly, including speaking to or writing in the media, or writing online including on social media.
14.4 Co-operate with formal inquiries and investigations and provide all relevant information that is requested in line with your obligations to patient confidentiality.
14.5 Provide an appropriate level of privacy for your patients during consultation to ensure that the process of information gathering, examination and treatment remains confidential. Different patients will require different levels of privacy and their preferences must be taken into account.
14.6 Only use the patient information you collect for the purposes it was given, or where you are required to share it by law.
14.7 Securely store and protect your patient records to prevent loss, theft and inappropriate disclosure, in accordance with data protection law. If you a re an employee, then this would be in accordance with your employer’s storage policy.
14.8 Confidentially dispose of patient records when no longer required in line with data protection requirements.
4. The standard relating to public protection is set out in Standard 11 of the Standards of Practice (Standard 10 of Standards for Optical Students).
This states the following:
Standard 11. Protect and safeguard patients, colleagues and others from harm
11.1 You must be aware of and comply with your legal obligations in relation to safeguarding of children, young people and vulnerable adults.
11.2 Protect and safeguard children, young people and other vulnerable adults from abuse. You must:
11.2.1 Be alert to signs of abuse and denial of rights.
11.2.2 Consider the needs and welfare of your patients.
11.2.3 Report concerns to an appropriate person or organisation, whether this is your tutor, supervisor or training provider.
11.2.4 Act quickly in order to prevent further risk of harm. Seek advice immediately if you are unsure of how to proceed.
11.2.5 Keep adequate notes on what has happened and what actions you took.
11.3 Promptly raise concerns about your patients, colleagues, employer or other organisation if patient or public safety might be at risk and encourage others to do the same. Concerns should be raised with your employing, contracting, professional or regulatory organisation as appropriate. This is sometimes referred to as ‘whistle-blowing’ and certain aspects of this are protected by law.
11.4 If you have concerns about your own fitness to practise whether due to issues with health, character, behaviour, judgement or any other matter that may damage the reputation of your profession, stop practising immediately and seek advice.
11.5 If patients are at risk because of inadequate premises, equipment, resources, employment policies or systems, put the matter right if that is possible and/ or raise a concern.
11.6 Ensure that any contracts or agreements that you enter into do not restrict you from raising concerns about patient safety including restricting what you are able to say when raising the concern.
11.7 Ensure that when reporting concerns, you take account of your obligations to maintain confidentiality as outlined in standard 14.
5. The requirement to maintain confidentiality is not absolute and can be overridden in cases where this is in the public interest, such as where there is a risk of public harm.
6. You should use your judgement to apply the guidance that follows to your own practice and the variety of settings in which you might work.
7. If you have any questions about this guidance or how to apply it, you should consider seeking further advice which, depending on the nature of your question, may involve contacting appropriate professional colleagues, your employer, your professional indemnity insurance provider, your professional or representative body, or obtaining independent legal advice.
Student optometrists and student dispensing opticians can additionally seek advice from their tutor, supervisor or training provider.