EU must 'take concrete action' to protect patients' right to confidentiality

The Hippocratic oath and professional confidentiality of physicians must be protected from the threat of electronic mass surveillance, writes Katrín Fjeldsted.

By Katrín Fjeldsted

26 Feb 2014

Earlier this month on 12 February, the European parliament's civil liberties committee voted in favour of British Socialist deputy Claude Moraes' report on the electronic mass surveillance on EU citizens.

The adoption of this report needs to be understood in the context of the revelations over several US mass-surveillance programmes where the US national security agency is said to have been massively accessing the personal data of EU citizens.

The Standing committee of European doctors welcomes the adoption of the report, especially because it sheds light on the importance of protecting the professional confidentiality of physicians.

Since the introduction of the Hippocratic oath, the medical profession has been obliged to professional secrecy. Trust is at the very basis of the therapeutic relation between a patient and their physician.

Patients need to feel able to discuss sensitive matters with their physician. All patients are therefore entitled to expect that their personal information will be treated respectfully and will remain confidential. The provision of good quality care cannot work effectively without this element of trust, and trust depends on confidentiality.

[pullquote]The fact that medical records may have been accessed by unauthorised institutions constitutes a grave unlawful intrusion in the most intimate sphere of one's privacy[/pullquote].

If a patient comes to my office and fears that their medical record might be hacked by a stranger, how am I supposed to ensure the confidentiality of our exchanges? Health outcomes depend on trust between the patient and the physician.

The EU cannot stay silent towards this massive abuse of power.

Guaranteeing that the physicians' obligation to professional secrecy is not breached by a third party is essential and we are strongly supportive of any measures taken in this direction.

I particularly appreciate the launch of a European digital habeas corpus which encompasses the protection of professional confidentiality.

It is high time for European institutions and member states to take concrete action to protect patients' right to confidentiality.