Law & Medicine

Failure to warn or report



Question: A patient who is a school bus driver is also an alcoholic, but he continues to drive despite his physician’s warning against drinking and driving. He already has had one prior driving under the influence (DUI) conviction. Fearing a potential vehicular accident with injuries to the schoolchildren, the physician, with permission, informed the patient’s wife of the situation; but that did not make a difference.

Under the circumstances, which of the following is best?

A. The physician has discharged his professional duty by warning the patient and informing his wife.

B. It is unethical for the physician to report this to the employer, because it violates the principle of confidentiality.

<a href="" external="1">Have you ever reported a patient because you believed they were a potential threat to other people?</a>

C. The physician may have an ethical and legal duty to report, because the risk of harm to the school children is foreseeable and outweighs other considerations.

D. A and B.

E. A and C.

Answer: C. The issue in this hypothetical revolves around the failure to warn and report when a doctor has determined that his or her patient poses a significant societal risk. It places the health care provider in a dilemma, because it pits patient confidentiality against the public interest in safety.

There does not appear to be an appellate case precisely on point, but the well known case of Tarasoff1 offers useful insight.

In Tarasoff, a California court imposed a legal duty on a college psychologist to warn an intended victim of harm, even though that meant breaching confidentiality in a professional relationship. A jilted patient had confided in the university psychologist his intention to kill his ex-girlfriend. The information, though shared with campus security, was not released to the intended victim, the girlfriend, whom the patient stabbed to death 2 months later.

The California court found the psychologist and the University of California (as the psychologist’s employer) liable, reasoning that the protection of public safety was more important than the sanctity of the doctor-patient confidentiality relationship.

The court wrote: “We recognize the public interest in supporting effective treatment of mental illness and in protecting the rights of patients to privacy and the consequent public importance of safeguarding the confidential character of psychotherapeutic communication. Against this interest, however, we must weigh the public interest in safety from violent assault. ... In this risk-infested society, we can hardly tolerate the further exposure to danger that would result from a concealed knowledge of the therapist that his patient was lethal.”

However, the duty to warn a third party may not be as clear cut where there is no readily identifiable victim.2

Further, the law is unsettled regarding a physician’s duty to report negligent conduct that poses a significant risk to public safety, e.g., where a patient insists on operating a vehicle against medical advice. Obviously, the doctor should spare no effort in trying to persuade such a patient to discontinue driving. When this fails, however, and depending on the circumstances, the physician should seriously consider breaching patent confidentiality by notifying the driving licensing bureau.

This opinion is in accord with the AMA Code of Medical Ethics: “Physicians should use their best judgment when determining when to report impairments that could limit a patient’s ability to drive safely. In situations where clear evidence of substantial driving impairment implies a strong threat to patient and public safety, and where the physician’s advice to discontinue driving privileges is ignored, it is desirable and ethical to notify the department of motor vehicles.”3

What about informing the patient’s employer if the risk of harm arises in the work setting?

The duty to report is clearer if the physician is a company doctor specifically charged with the task of determining whether an employee is fit for work. However, a patient’s personal physician may be a different matter, because he or she does not share the same contractual obligation as a company employed doctor.

Still, the circumstances may well dictate the need to report. In the hypothetical scenario posed above, the patient is refusing to heed the advice of physician and spouse, and given the history of a DUI, can be said to be placing innocent children and others at risk. The physician may need to go beyond warning the patient and wife, even though revealing a patient’s diagnosis violates the principle of confidentiality.

Arguably controversial, the physician’s justification is that there is a higher ethical and legal duty to report, as the risk of harm to the school children is both unreasonable and foreseeable, outweighing other considerations.


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