Continuing Education & Resources for Mental Health Professionals

Virginia Legal Information

Virginia Supreme Court:
Fairfax Hospital vs. Patricia Curtis


Implications for Clinicians
M. A. Fisher (2000)

The Virginia Supreme Court has ruled that, unless there is a serious danger to the patient or others, a health care provider may legally disclose patient informtion without the patient’s consent only if (1) there is a statutory requirement to release it (as in child abuse reports); or (2) there is a judge’s order requiring its release. ( Fairfax Hospital v. Patricia Curtis, 1997.)

Portions of that decision are quoted below:

  “In our jurisprudence, a health care provider owes a duty of reasonable care to the patient. Included within that duty is the health care provider’s obligation to preserve the confidentiality of information about the patient which was communicated to the health care provider or discovered by the health care provider during the course of treatment. Indeed, confidentiality is an integral aspect of the relationship between a health care provider and a patient and, often, to give the health care provider the necessary information to provide proper treatment, the patient must reveal the most intimate aspects of his or her life to the health care provider during the course of treatment.”We hold that in the absence of a statutory command to the contrary, or absent a serious danger to the patient or others, a health care provider owes a duty to the patient not to disclose information gained from the patient during the course of treatment without the patient’s authorization, and that violation of this duty gives rise to an action in tort.”

Legally, some interpret this Virginia Supreme Court decision to require that, unless a patient consents to the disclosure, health care professionals have a legal obligation to respond to a “discovery subpoena” by filing (or ensuring that the patient’s attorney files) a motion to quash the subpoena, thus bringing a judge into the decision, and thereby obtaining either a protective order or an order to disclose.[(See Lombardo, P.A. (1998) Virginia Supreme Court endorses medical confidentiality claim. Developments in Mental Health Law 18. Institute for Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy, University of Virginia.]

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