I’ve got a secret…

Well, doesn’t everyone?

Those of us who are professionals are often privy to other people’s secrets, though. In my training as a pharmacist, it was drummed into me that patient confidentiality is essential. How can your patient trust you with their secrets if they can’t be sure that you won’t blab them all over town?

As a professional, you have to accept that you will – especially if you live near where you work – come into possession of juicy bits of gossip about your neighbours, friends and colleagues. And you aren’t allowed to talk about it. Even if you’re absolutely bursting to share with your BFF the fact that you saw so-and-so going into the GUM clinic, or you dispensed abortion medication for whatshername, or antipsychotics for so-and-so-else, you have to keep your mouth shut. However frustrating it is that you are not allowed to capitalise on these pieces of social gold, you can’t do it. No matter how impressed that hot guy (or girl) would be, or what this would do to your street cred. Your patient has a right to have their privacy respected, and to know that whatever they have to worry about, having their healthcare team blab their secrets is not part of it.

The same is true of lawyers, only more so. I’ve read the Law Society’s practice note on Social Media for solicitors, which seems to take client confidentiality to a whole new level. One is left with the impression that the only way for a solicitor to maintain client confidentiality with respect to social media is to take a sledgehammer to his personal PC (and ensure its complete destruction), and then go and live on a moutaintop somewhere. Alone.

All the more surprising to find a solicitor gossiping about his famous client to his wife’s friends. Most breaches of confidentiality are accidental: a laptop is left on a bus, hard drives are not destroyed, patient notes are stolen from a car. But in this case, the lawyer involved deliberately shared a client’s secrets with an outsider. To me, there is a whole world of difference between sheer carelessness (even to the level of culpable idiocy) and deliberate action.

There is another level of difference between deliberate breaking of confidentiality for gain, and for momentary titillation and the ‘street cred’ of being ‘someone who knows’. I don’t know what it says about my ethics that I would have found it more forgivable if the solicitor had sold his client’s secret to a newspaper for a colossal sum of money in order to pay off mounting debts. As it is, he didn’t even have that excuse. He just couldn’t keep his mouth shut.

And how can you trust someone who will tell a juicy secret just because it is juicy? You can’t say “well, he’s perfectly trustworthy as long as he keeps away from the gee-gees”. The only way you can guarantee he’s not going to tell all is to only have boring secrets that aren’t worth telling.

And this leads into another interesting question. What if the client’s secret is so exciting that you just can’t keep your mouth shut; it’s like getting pocket money when you’re six: saving? What’s that? You can’t think of anything else until you’ve blown your five pence on sweets.

But then, as a professional, you’re not six years old any more. You’re supposed to have more control. And if you unburden yourself of the hot news to your trusted BFF, then aren’t you simply transferring the burden of secrecy to her? You have eased the pressure on yourself of being ‘big with news’ – but only to transfer it to another person, who will presumably also be consumed with the desire to pass on this delicious piece of goss. How on earth can you expect your BFF, a non-professional, under no duty to respect your client’s right to confidentiality (particularly since you’ve just trampled right over it) to keep her mouth shut if you couldn’t?

The Independent is quite sympathetic – comparatively speaking – to the lawyer. If J.K. Rowling had wanted to keep her pseudonym secret, they say, why didn’t she publish incognito? Personally, I think this misses a major point. Lawyer. Duty of confidentiality. Regardless. Duh.

Also, they say, pity the poor solicitor at the dinner party, with no exciting stories. Nobody likes to seem boring! After all, doctors tell gory stories, teachers talk about horrible kids. Why shouldn’t solicitors do the same and blab their clients’ secrets (but only the exciting ones, natch)?

Well, there is a major difference here. As a pharmacist, I’m quite entitled to chat to my husband about the ethical dilemma I had at work, which was remarkable in that it was almost exactly like the ones we keep getting given as stock examples during ethics workshops. You know, the kind of thing that you think never really happens. The thing is, I do it without mentioning any of the details that might enable my husband (or anyone he talks to) to identify any of the partcipants. Nobody’s right to confidentiality has been violated. Once I start mentioning names, or adding in details that might make any of the participants identifiable, then I’m breaking confidentiality.

The same applies to lawyers. Nobody says you can’t tell interesting stories (unless you really do have a boring job, in which case, make them up. Since you can’t give names, you won’t get found out – see, this confidentiality schtick isn’t all bad) – you just have to be careful which ones you tell.

And if you absolutely, positively, can’t bear to keep your mouth shut – well, lawyering probably isn’t the right job for you. According to The Independent, you might have more success as a journalist – they have a positive duty to gossip!

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