Germany wants to loosen medical confidentiality in wake of recent attacks

Germany wants to loosen medical confidentiality in wake of recent attacks

In the wake of a series of terrorist-related attacks, Germany is beefing up its security. In a new plan, interior minister Thomas de Maizière proposed to loosen medical confidentiality so doctors can alert police if they suspect a patient is planning to commit a crime. An effective measure in the fight against terrorism, or a bad trade-off between privacy and a false sense of security? Sjaak Nouwt, health law expert and former assistant professor at Tilburg University, explains why this might not be good idea.

Germany is in a state of high alert. In July, the nation was hit by five violent attacks, which killed fifteen people and injured many others. In order to trace potential terror suspects more effectively, De Maizière wants to make it easier for doctors to waive doctor-patient confidentiality, Bild reported on Wednesday.

Psychiatric care

In two of the recent attacks – the shooting in a shopping mall in Munich and the suicide bombing in Ansbach – the perpetrators had previously been in psychiatric care. Allowing doctors to report their suspicions to police could help prevent violent attacks in the future.

However, not everyone is convinced by this logic. Frank Ulrich Montgomery, president of the German Federal Association of Doctors (BÄK), warned that Germany should not be seduced into “hasty political and legal measures” by the tense security situation. “Doctor-patient privilege is a basic right protected by the constitution”, he said in a statement.

Similarly, Konstantin von Notz of the Green Party tweeted that “the loosening of medical confidentiality weakens security rather than strengthening it”.

A safer society?

Sjaak Nouwt, health law expert and former assistant professor at Tilburg University, explains why loosening medical confidentiality might not be good idea. “The softening of doctor-patient confidentiality rules does not necessarily contribute to a safer society”, Nouwt says. “People who need psychiatric help may not seek treatment if they believe confidentiality is no longer ensured.”

Nouwt stresses that medical confidentiality not only protects the privacy and well-being of the individual patient. It also benefits society as a whole, as people within the society are not discouraged or prevented from getting medical care. Patients should feel safe to share information with their doctors, so they can receive the treatment they need. 

Red flags

Under the current German law, there are a few exceptions for doctor-patient confidentiality. For example, confidentiality may be breached if there is an imminent risk of serious bodily harm to a specific person or group. The question is whether these exceptions are sufficient in the current climate of terrorist threats and violent attacks.

According to Sjaak Nouwt, the answer is yes. Loosening the existing rules on doctor-patient confidentiality will not contribute to a safer society, Nouwt believes. Rather, doctors should carefully consider each individual patient and be alert for red flags indicating that the patient poses a serious threat to other people. Unfortunately, Nouwt adds, such red flags are not always there.

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