I am becoming increasingly concerned about my wife, who has had ME for many years. Her condition is getting worse and I believe she has also crossed the boundary from feeling fed up to being quite badly depressed. She no longer has any contact with her GP because he cannot offer any useful form of management advice and she does not want to ‘bother the doctor’. As we both have the same doctor, I asked the surgery receptionist if I could have an appointment to talk to the GP about my wife. I was told that this would not be possible because doctors have to follow very strict rules on medical confidentiality. This means they cannot discuss one person’s health with someone else, even a close relative. Is this correct? And, if so, what can I do to get some professional medical input?
The General Medical Council produces detailed information for doctors on medical confidentiality as part of their guidance on good professional conduct. However, this guidance does not mean that there is a complete ban on doctors talking to friends or relatives about another person’s health. This sort of conversation happens every day in hospital when doctors speak to relatives about a sick partner or child. The crucial deciding factor here is whether the person involved has given permission for their medical details to be discussed with someone else.
If consent has been clearly given, preferably in writing, the GP should then be willing to speak to a relative or carer about any aspect of health that is causing them concern. If you don’t have consent, you can still raise concerns about a friend or relative’s health. However, because of patient confidentiality, the GP won’t be able to enter into a discussion with you. The General Medical Council has more information (below) about confidentiality and informed consent or you can ask her GP what would be required in these particular circumstances.
If your wife agrees, ask her to give written permission for you to discuss your concerns regarding her physical and mental health. If there is still a problem, you should talk to the practice manager or senior partner. If your wife is unwilling to give consent, your options are clearly far more limited. But it would still be worth either writing to her GP and outlining why you feel she needs some medical help, or asking if the request for an appointment could be reconsidered.
- The ME Association has detailed information available to download from the website shop:
- A good relationship with your doctor is a vital part of any ongoing care and support plan, but it can be difficult to establish. We explain what to expect from your doctor and how you can work to ensure a supportive relationship in the years ahead.
- The General Medical Council: Confidentiality: good practice in handling patient information | April 2017 (Updated May 2018)
- The General Medical Council: Decision-making and consent | November 2020
Medical Matters is for information purposes only. The answers provided by Dr Shepherd and the ME Association’s other expert advisers should not be construed as medical advice. We recommend that any information you deem relevant is discussed with your GP as soon as possible. It is important to obtain advice from a GP who is in charge of your clinical care, who knows you well, and who can consider other likely causes for symptoms. Seek personalised medical advice whenever a new symptom arises, or an existing symptom worsens. Don't assume that new or worsened symptoms are a result of having ME/CFS.