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Independents' Day

Pay-out prompts advice on breaching confidentiality

Legal experts have reassured GPs they are justified in breaching patient confidentiality to warn a close contact of a patient with a serious communicable disease they are at risk of infection.

The Medical Defence Union was prompted to act as a high-profile court case in Australia resulted in a woman being awarded £290,000 because two doctors failed to tell her her then fiance had HIV. She was subsequently infected.

The MDU revealed one of the most common inquiries to its advice line was from GPs worried that revealing a patient's serious communicable disease to a sexual contact without consent would be a breach of confidentiality.

But the MDU said failing to do so would expose GPs to possible legal action.

Dr Hugh Stewart, medico-legal adviser at the MDU, said a breach of confidentiality could be justified legally and ethically to protect a person from risk of death or serious harm.

The doctor's duty to impart this information was 'independent of whether the patient's partner is on your practice list', he added.

Dr Catti Moss, a GP in Guilsborough, Northamptonshire, and co-author of the RCGP's handbook on sexual health, said GPs should deal with the patient infected with HIV first and then make clear their partner should be told.

She said: 'I'm sure it occasionally happens but people with HIV tend to tell their partners anyway.'

The GMC has set up a working group to update its advice on serious communicable diseases. It has agreed the focus should move away from HIV, AIDS and hepatitis and deal equally with other diseases, such as tuberculosis.

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