Professionals are not allowed to share confidential information their clients discuss with them. This is called the duty of professional secrecy. This duty exists so people can open up freely if they need help, and professionals can take whatever steps are necessary.
Professional secrecy protects different types of information. Examples include a patient’s conversation with a psychologist, a social worker’s case notes and a lawyer’s legal opinion. Professional secrecy can also protect a person’s identity. For example, a doctor is not allowed to tell the parents of a 16-year-old that their daughter received medical care, even if the reason for the visit is not mentioned.
Professional secrecy protects the client, but not the professional.
In general, a professional cannot be forced to talk about protected information that concerns a client. It is the client’s decision whether or not to reveal the confidential information, or whether to give the professional permission to share it.
Important! If a client sues a professional, then professional secrecy no longer applies; the information that was once protected can now be revealed. Think about a case in which a patient sues a surgeon because of a medical mistake. In this situation, the surgeon has to build a defence and is allowed to reveal information about the client to the judge.
Not all the information you give to a professional is protected. Professional secrecy applies if these three conditions are met:
1. The person who receives the information has a duty to respect the client’s confidentiality.
Every professional who belongs to a professional order has a duty to respect professional secrecy. (An order is an association that oversees a profession.) This includes doctors, psychologists, nurses and lawyers, as well as hundreds of thousands of members belonging to Quebec’s 40 or so professional orders. Professional secrecy also applies to priests, ministers, pastors and other spiritual advisors who hear confession.
2. The information is private.
The information was shared with the understanding that it would be kept private, that is, not told to anyone else. For example, when a patient authorizes a doctor to send medical records to an insurance company, the information is no longer considered confidential as regards the insurer.
3. The information is shared as part of the professional’s job.
Only the information that involves the relationship between the professional and the client is protected. This means only the information shared with professionals as part of their job is covered. So, if you tell your doctor stories about your children, this is not covered by professional secrecy. But if you tell the doctor about a health problem, this information could be protected.
Lastly, a professional’s co-workers and employees sometimes have access confidential information so they can do their jobs. Professional secrecy applies to them too. For example, a medical secretary who has to see a patient’s information to schedule a follow-up appointment must continue to protect the information.
Confidentiality Not Respected: Solutions
If a professional does not respect your right to confidentiality, you can contact the disciplinary council of the professional order concerned, for example, the Collège des médecins (professional order for doctors) or the Barreau du Québec (professional order for lawyers). An investigation will be conducted to decide whether to proceed with a formal complaint against the professional. If the disciplinary committee decides the professional did not respect your right to confidentiality, it can impose penalties that range from a warning to not being allowed to work in the profession.
You can also go to court to sue the professional and ask for compensation.
According to the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, judges must make sure that professional secrecy is respected. For example, they may remind witnesses who have a duty to respect professional secrecy that they are not allowed to talk about a client’s confidential information. Sometimes, judges also have to separate information that is covered by professional secrecy from information that is not.