Duty to maintain confidentiality has its origin in the Hippocratic Oath, which is an ethical code attributed to the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, adopted as a guide to conduct by the medical profession throughout the ages and still used in the graduation ceremonies of many medical schools and colleges. Hippocrates lived and practised as a Physician between third and first century BC. He has been referred to by Plato as a famous Asclepiad who had philosophical approach to medicine. His manuscripts, the Hippocratic Collection (Corpus Hippocracti-cum), contained the Hippocractic Oath which is reproduced below:
“I swear by Apollo the physician and Aesculapius and health and all-heal and all the gods and goddesses that according to my ability and judgment I will keep this oath and this stipulation – to reckon him who taught me this art equally dear to me as my parents, to share my substance with him and relieve his necessities if required, to look upon his offspring in the same footing as my own brothers and to teach them this art if they shall wish to learn it without fee or stipulation and that by precept, lecture, and every other mode of instruction I will impart a knowledge of the art to my own sons and those of my teachers and to disciples bound by a stipulation and oath according to the LAW of medicine but to none others. I will follow that system of regimen which, according to my ability and judgment, I consider for the benefit of my patients, and abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous. I will give no deadly medicine to any one if asked nor suggest any such counsel, and in like manner I will not give to a woman a passary to produce abortion. With purity and with holiness I will pass my life and practice my art. I will not cut persons laboring under the stone but will leave this to be done by men who are practitioners of this work. Into whatever houses I enter, I will go into them for the benefit of the sick and will abstain from every voluntary act of mischief and corruption, and further, from the seduction of females or males, of freeman and slaves. Whatever, in connection with my professional practice, or not in connection with it, I see or hear, in the life of men, which ought not to be spoken of abroad, I will not divulge as reckoning that all such should be kept secret. While I continue to keep this oath unviolated, may it be granted to me to enjoy life and the practice of the art, respected by all men, in all times, but should I trespass and violate this oath, may the reverse be my lot.”
The Hippocractic Oath consists of two parts. The first, or covenant, is the solemn agreement concerning the relationship of apprentice to teacher and the obligations enjoined on the pupil. The second part constitutes the ethical code.
It is on the basis of the above that International Code of Medical Ethics has also laid down as under:
“A physician shall preserve absolute confidentiality on all he knows about his patient even after his patient has died.”
Hippocratic Oath as such is not enforceable in a Court of LAW as it has no statutory force. Medical information about a person is protected by the Code of Professional Conduct made by the Medical Council of India under Section 33(m) read with Section 20A of the Act. The relevant provisions of the Code of Medical Ethics have already been reproduced above which contain an exception to the general rule of confidentiality, inasmuch as it provides that the information may be disclosed in a Court of LAW under the orders of the Presiding Judge. This is also the LAW in England where it is provided that the exceptions to this rule permit disclosure with the consent, or in the best interests, of the patient, in compliance with a Court order or other legally enforceable duty and, in very limited circumstances, where the public interet so requires. Circumstances in which the public interest would override the duty of confidentiality could, for example, be the investigation and prosecution of serious crime or where there is an immediate or future (but not a past and remote) health risk to others.
REF: AIR 1999 SC 495 : (1998) 1 Suppl. SCR 723 : (1998) 8 SCC 296 : JT 1998 (7) SC 626 : (1998) 6 SCALE 230