Medical life: Patients' trust must not be betrayed in the wake of the riots


In 1981, after the Brixton riots, violence broke out in other parts of London, including Hackney, where I lived. Battles between rioters and police led to injuries and, after one of these incidents, my GP at the time – Robert Lyle – happened by Hackney Hospital Accident and Emergency. There he witnessed a woman police constable going through the A&E register with a nurse. "And this was a head injury, was it?" the Pc was saying, as she noted down the patient's name and address.

Dr Lyle was outraged at this blatant breach of patient confidentiality. It was obvious the police were using A&E records to identify rioters, whom they could then arrest. Twenty four hours later he vented his anger on the BBC Today programme, where he observed that if injured rioters feared being shopped to the police they would not seek treatment at A&E.

His intervention triggered a national debate about the duties of doctors to patients in circumstances where a crime might have been committed.

In the decades since, the General Medical Council has refined its advice, making it clear that doctors' overriding duty is to protect patients' confidentiality and only in cases of the most serious crimes are they entitled to breach it.

Thirty years on, following the 2011 riots, the Medical Defence Union, which provides legal support to doctors, last week issued its own advice about shopping rioters to the police. Unfortunately this document gets the balance so completely wrong that it represents a disgraceful betrayal of patients' trust.

The tenor of the advice is established with its opening sentence – "The MDU has advised its members about when they can report a patient to the authorities" – and continues: "While doctors' duty of confidentiality is central to the doctor-patient relationship, doctors can justifiably disclose information about patients if it is in the public interest."

It does say information may only be disclosed in the case of "serious" crime which "threatens serious harm to public order or involves substantial financial gain or loss", but fails to stress it. Knocking off a pair of box-fresh trainers or a nice new laptop doesn't count – the kind of crimes of which the vast majority of those convicted in the recent riots have been guilty.

It is the spirit of the MDU advice that is wrong – not its letter. It utterly fails to emphasise the absolute priority doctors must accord to patient confidentially if they are to maintain their patients' trust. The document should have opened by saying doctors must only dare to breach it in the most extreme circumstances and when they do so, they must be prepared to defend themselves in front of the GMC.

It is not the medical profession's responsibility to maintain law and order – its duty is to provide care to those who need it, non-judgmentally, without fear or favour. If doctors lose sight of that, we are doomed.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
A boy holds a chick during the Russian National Agricultural Exhibition Golden Autumn 2014 in Moscow on October 9, 2014.
Life and Style
love + sex
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
Life and Style
A statue of the Flemish geographer Gerard Kremer, Geradus Mercator (1512 - 1594) which was unveiled at the Geographical Congree at Anvers. He was the first person to use the word atlas to describe a book of maps.
techThe 16th century cartographer created the atlas
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

    £25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

    Recruitment Genius: General Processor

    £7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

    Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

    £18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

    Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

    £14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot