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Opinion 5.051 - Confidentiality of Medical Information Postmortem

All medically related confidences disclosed by a patient to a physician and information contained within a deceased patient’s medical record, including information entered postmortem, should be kept confidential to the greatest possible degree. However, the obligation to safeguard patient confidences is subject to certain exceptions that are ethically and legally justifiable because of overriding societal considerations (Opinion 5.05, "Confidentiality"). At their strongest, confidentiality protections after death would be equal to those in force during a patient’s life. Thus, if information about a patient may be ethically disclosed during life, it likewise may be disclosed after the patient has died.

Disclosure of medical information postmortem for research and educational purposes is appropriate as long as confidentiality is maintained to the greatest possible degree by removing any individual identifiers. Otherwise, in determining whether to disclose identified information after the death of a patient, physicians should consider the following factors:

(1) The imminence of harm to identifiable individuals or the public health

(2) The potential benefit to at-risk individuals or the public health (eg, if a communicable or inherited disease is preventable or treatable)

(3) Any statement or directive made by the patient regarding postmortem disclosure

(4) The impact disclosure may have on the reputation of the deceased patient

(5) Personal gain for the physician that may unduly influence professional obligations of confidentiality

When a family member or other decision maker has given consent to an autopsy, physicians may disclose the results of the autopsy to the individual(s) that granted consent to the procedure. (IV)

Issued December 2000 based on the report "Confidentiality of Medical Information Postmortem," adopted June 2000. Updated December 2001 (Arch Pathol Lab Med. 2001; 125:1189-92)