Our medical records, doctor visit discussions, and medical history are kept confidential through what is known as physician-patient privilege. This privilege protects our rights to privacy as they pertain to our medical care. While this protection often comes as peace of mind for many patients, it can also become a very serious issue in the event of a wrongful death case.
The issue of whether or not physician-patient privilege extends past a patient's death has been one of continuing controversy. Some people feel very strongly about their privacy even after death, while others think that there is no reason for privacy once a patient passes.
Physician-patient privilege only pertains to medical records that are private or considered protected health information. This type of information is anything in the medical context that is not already known publicly about the patient. Generally, unless a patient waives the physician-patient privilege, their medical provider is not allowed nor required to disclose medical information. However, this right to privacy can be breached by court order.
When a patient dies, the physician-patient privilege does not dissolve. Occasionally, a personal representative or next of kin may be able to waive this privilege for certain reasons. In the event there is a question of wrongful death, some physicians and facilities are reluctant to supply medical records for a deceased patient. Fortunately, it is often enough when requesting medical records for the personal representative or next of kin to state that they are doing so for consideration of a possible lawsuit.
Waiving the physician-patient privilege and obtaining medical records for a loved one may be extremely difficult when outside the context of litigation. However, when considering a wrongful death lawsuit, the right to a deceased patient's medical records may be absolute. Family members and personal representatives that wish to waive the physician-patient privilege to obtain medical records for a wrongful death lawsuit may benefit by speaking with an attorney.