The concept of confidentiality in the patient-physician relationship has existed for millennia and is enshrined in both ancient and modern1 codes of ethics. Although most ethical codes stipulate that the duty to maintain confidentiality extends beyond death, there is rarely any such provision in statutory law. This may lead to uncertainty about how to treat information given in confidence to health professionals during life when access to that information is requested after death. Confidentiality is never an absolute and is usually qualified by the need to protect society or third parties. Confidentiality may be assumed to be good in itself or defended on grounds of autonomy or utilitarianism—if patients cannot trust their physicians, the relationship becomes unworkable.
Robinson DJ, O’Neill D. Access to Health Care Records After DeathBalancing Confidentiality With Appropriate Disclosure. JAMA. 2007;297(6):634–636. doi:10.1001/jama.297.6.634
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