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Does the Physician-Patient Privilege Continue in a Wrongful Death Suit?

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The physician-patient privilege protects the privacy of a patient's medical records. While many people believe that the physician-patient privilege should extend after death, others believe that it can hinder the outcome of a wrongful death lawsuit.

What is Physician-Patient Privilege

The physician-patient privilege is a medical right of privacy. It can protect both physicians and patients in wrongful death lawsuits. In the 44 states that recognize physician-patient privilege, excluding Tennessee, patients have the right to keep their medical information private, so it is not shared without their consent. Unless a patient waives physician-patient privilege, a physician is not allowed to disclose any medical information acquired while providing medical care to the patient. The physician-patient privilege does not cover health information that is commonly known or public knowledge, only private medical records between a physician and patient..

Physician-patient confidentiality covers all information that a patient reveals to a doctor, as well as any opinions and conclusions the doctor may form after examining and assessing the patient. Medical information includes:

  • Medical history
  • Pre-existing medical conditions
  • Lab reports, x-rays and scans
  • All communication between the patient and doctor
  • All communication between the patient and the doctor's medical and/or professional staff

If physician-patient privilege is breached and a patient's information is disclosed without authorization, the patient could have a cause of action against the medical provider for medical malpractice, invasion of privacy, or other related torts.

How Long Does the Physician-Patient Privilege Last?

In most states, excluding Tennessee and six other states, the duty of physician-patient privilege continues even after a patient has stopped seeing or receiving medical treatment from that particular doctor. The duty of confidentiality even survives the death of a patient. If the patient dies and is harmed by breach of information, a lawsuit can be filed with a wrongful death attorney. In states that protect physician-patient privilege, the only way to attain a patient's medical records is with a court order filed through a wrongful death attorney or through requests made by state health officials.

In most states, physician -patient privilege is protected under state law. In Tennessee, physician-patient privilege is not recognized, so confidentiality is not upheld. Only psychotherapist-patient privilege is recognized in Tennessee. However, under the Federal Rules of Evidence, physician-patient privilege is typically protected by federal laws like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act which prevents most disclosures about a patient's health.

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