The scene

A medical student called the advice line after he and a patient recognised each other during a sensitive consultation.

MDU advice

A GP practice had an arrangement for medical students to sit in on surgeries. Patients were informed when they booked their appointment that a medical student would be there to observe. If they preferred not to have the student present, this would be arranged.

Unfortunately, there was a new receptionist at the practice who had forgotten to warn one patient and offer her the chance to opt out. The patient and the student who was observing both recognised each other during the consultation. The patient became upset and the student left the room to allow the consultation to be completed without him. The GP reassured the patient that the student was bound by a duty of confidentiality but the patient remained distressed.

The student called the advice line to ask if there was any more he should do. The adviser discussed duty of confidentiality and emphasised that this applies to all information, including the fact that the person is a patient of the practice and attended for a consultation and not just sensitive medical information. The student was concerned, as he was likely to meet this patient again because they worked together at a local bar.

The adviser suggested that if the patient mentioned the incident, the student should apologise again even though the mistake had not been his, and he should reassure her of his duty of confidentiality. The adviser also suggested that the practice should investigate this as a significant event to see what had gone wrong at reception and why, to help them develop a more robust system for informing patients of the presence of a student and their right to opt out.

The adviser told the student that if a complaint arose, the MDU would be pleased to assist him, but she reassured him that she did not think he was vulnerable to personal criticism.

This is a fictional case compiled from actual cases in the MDU files.


This article was correct at publication on 13/08/2015. It is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.