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A Case To Follow: Doctor Patient Confidentiality Challenged

Yesterday, I was reading the New York Times and I stumbled upon this article.   The article is an one person’s opinion, but it links to the trial documents which give more detail.

The article is about a case in Washington State that has relevance to everyone with a mental illness. The case involves a psychiatrist who is being sued for not warning victims of an eventual murder that they were in danger.

The client (perpetrator) never made a specific threat against the people he murdered. So, the question is how was the doctor to know that his client was a danger to people where no specific threat was made? The original court decided in the psychiatrist’s favor, but an appeal court overturned that decision, and claimed that a psychiatrist should warn “all foreseeable victims.”

This is a big deal, and the outcome of this case has the potential to impact all of us who regularly see a psychiatrist as a part of our treatment.

I have to say, if I was psychotic (which I have been many times) and my doctor thought I was a threat to myself or anyone else, I would want my doctor to have me hospitalized. I would not want to risk any injuries to me or anyone else – it simply isn’t worth it. But I would not want my doctor to call people who s/he thought I might harm (like a boss, or old boyfriend, or something) and tell them they were possibly at risk of being injured by me.

First of all, I have never been homicidal, and statistics show that most people with a mental illness are much more likely to be a danger to themselves than anyone else, but statistics aside, there is too much room for error here for me to be comfortable.  Notifying people that they may be at risk when the client has made no specific threat seems like it is going to harm many people with a mental illness. Can you imagine someone’s boss getting that call?  I know the outcome of the case is supposed to protect people, and I am all for protecting people, but the privacy of the mentally ill, and their willingness to trust their psychiatrist, is also critical.

People frequently complain that the untreated mentally ill pose a risk to society. I don’t know how accurate that belief is, but if people who need treatment feel like their psychiatrist is free to call people and “warn” them of risk (that may or may not be present) then less people are going to seek treatment than ever before.

This seems like a case, if decided against the psychiatrist has the potential to do much more harm than good.

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A Case To Follow: Doctor Patient Confidentiality Challenged

Rebecca Chamaa

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APA Reference
Chamaa, R. (2015). A Case To Follow: Doctor Patient Confidentiality Challenged. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 28, 2020, from


Last updated: 20 Nov 2015
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