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Confidentiality: All You Need to Know

Confidentiality is the protection of personal information. that means keeping a client’s information between you and the client, and not telling others.

Examples of maintaining confidentiality include:

  • individual files are locked and secured
  • support workers do not tell other people what is in a client’s file unless they have permission from the client
  • information about clients is not told to people who do not need to know- clients’ medical details are not discussed without their consent
  • adult clients have the right to keep any information about themselves confidential, which includes that information being kept from family and friends.

The types of information that is considered confidential can include:

  • name, date of birth, age, sex and address
  • current contact details of family, guardian etc
  • bank details
  • medical history or records
  • personal care issues
  • service records and file progress notes
  • individual personal plans
  • assessments or reports
  • guardianship orders
  • incoming or outgoing personal correspondence.

Other information relating to Ethic or racial origin, political opinions, religious or philosophical beliefs, health or sexual lifestyle should also be considered confidential. Adult clients have the right to determine what information they consider personal and confidential. There is, however, no such thing as absolute confidentiality in the community services industry. Workers are required to keep notes on all interactions with clients and often to keep statistics about who is seen and what issues are addressed. As a worker, there will be times when you could be faced with some personal difficulties regarding confidentiality. You need to give your client an assurance that what is said will be in confidence (that it will stay secret between you and the client) because, unless you are able to do that, the client is unlikely to be open with you. However, you also need to be aware of the limits to the confidentiality that you are offering. There are several instances where total confidentiality is either impossible, undesirable or illegal. These include:

  • cases where the law requires disclosure of information which will be
    • if the health and/or welfare of a child or young person is at risk. You are required to contact Department of Community Services and notify them of your concerns.
    • if your client tells you he/she has committed a serious crime. You are required to notify your supervisor or the police directly.
    • if a worker is subpoenaed to present information in a court of law
  • when the client needs to be protected from harming them self (e.g. if suicidal)
  • where others may need to be protected (if the client has threatened to harm others or will do so inadvertently)
  • the need to keep records
  • when working in conjunction with other professionals in caring for a client
  • the requirements of professional supervision, training, workshops or seminars.
  • For more details, go to the sections on Legislation governing confidentiality and Exceptions to the general rule of confidentiality.

It is always good practice to tell clients at the beginning of your contact with them that whatever they tell you is confidential except in the above circumstances. When writing up case notes you need to be careful about what you include and how you write this information up. Always remember that clients have the right to see files and read anything that has been written about them. When working with other professionals it is good practice to obtain the written consent of the client before exchanging information.

If you are going to be discussing a client and their situation in supervision, in a training session or at a workshop, you can always change the name and any information that may identify the client. Other workers in these situations are also bound by the same ethical and legal requirements relating to confidentiality that you are.

Confidentiality also extends to things like:

  • names and addresses of clients
  • phone numbers and addresses of staff and volunteers
  • names and personal details of people who donate money or time
  • details of funding agreements
  • information about strategic planning.

Importance of confidentiality

Confidentiality is important for several reasons. One of the most important elements of confidentiality is that it helps to build and develop trust. It potentially allows for the free flow of information between the client and worker and acknowledges that a client’s personal life and all the issues and problems that they have belong to them. One of the major purposes for obtaining a client’s consent before speaking to a third party (such as another agency or a family member/career) is to protect the confidentiality and privacy of the client. Informed consent (obtaining personal information with the formal permission of the client or a person who has the legal authority to provide permission on behalf of the client) is considered essential in maintaining the privacy of the client. It is important to keep your clients’ business as just that – their business. You should only discuss matters relating to your clients’ business with co-workers, and then only what needs to be discussed. Discussions should take place in the workplace and not be audible to other members of staff or the general public. You should never discuss clients’ business with family or friends.

In the case where legal obligations override a client’s right to keep information private and confidential, a community service organization has the responsibility to inform the client and explain in a way that they can understand, the limits of confidentiality. Information may also be sought through a subpoena for court proceedings. For example, in the case where a client may have been abused by a disability support worker, the police and court can request information from the community service organization, without the client’s consent. A subpoena can be challenged if it seems unreasonable of the information requested is unnecessary for the case.

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