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Doctor-Patient Confidentiality Must Protect Young Patients

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Doctor-Patient Confidentiality Must Protect Young Patients

Alyssa Blair, Editor-In-Chief

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Many people are familiar with the concept of doctor- patient confidentiality. This concept is the idea that any information shared between an attending physician and the patient is kept confidential. The purpose of the policy is to ensure that all patients receive the utmost level of medical care without keeping certain aspects of symptoms or experiences confidential. This law also exists in a legal capacity where information a patient may disclose to their doctor cannot be used against them in court. While there are exceptions to this law, they happen less frequent than one may realize. Doctor- patient confidentiality also exists to protect medical records under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA). In summary, doctor- patient confidentiality puts everyone in the patient’s life on a need-to-know basis regarding medical information.

All of these seem like good and fair provisions, which are protected by written legal legislation to varying degrees in different states. The catch with the doctor-patient confidentiality law is that it only applies to those that the law recognizes as legal adults, which in most states in the US is 18 years of age. Until age 18, patients are considered minors, and the minors’ parents must give parental consent for majority of medical treatments. This opens up the discussion of teenagers, as kids are reaching an age where they are beginning to make their own decisions, and where their place lies in deciding the best course of action for their own medical treatment.

Except in extreme circumstances, such as when a minor becomes emancipated, or no longer dependent on their parents in any way, parents will act as “personal representatives” or advocates for their child’s healthcare. Although this makes sense for when children are  younger and do not understand what is happening in their bodies, children eventually grow into teenagers. Teenagers are often mature enough to be given the responsibilities and privileges of driving a car and taking difficult classes in school, but the law does not recognize them as mature enough to make decisions regarding extremely personal health decisions.

In Massachusetts, the legal age of consent is 16. In all 50 states, it is either age 15, 16, or 17. A minor is recognized as being mentally mature and competent enough to agree to engage in sexual activity. Yet, a female cannot obtain prescription contraceptives from her doctor, such as an implant, the pill, or the shot, without obtaining parental consent first. On the website of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, it states, “In the case of abortion, if a parent provides consent to your abortion, the parent has all the rights outlined in this Notice, including the right to access the health information relating to the abortion. However, if you obtain a judicial bypass of the consent requirement, you have the same rights as an adult with respect to health information relating to abortion.” Basically, a parent has a say in what happens to her daughter’s body, or she must go to court in order to prove that she should have the right to decide what happens for her body. Even though in the eyes of the law, the activity she partook in isn’t illegal. While it may be rare that a parent doesn’t let their child do what they want in a situation such as this, if the law states one thing, then all other laws should back it up.

A minor’s power to make their own medical decisions can involve much more serious cases, like life and death. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 young people between the ages 13-18 will suffer from a mental illness of some type. These mental illnesses, like physical illness, require treatment and therapy. Sometimes they even require prescription medication, like antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications, but since the patients are teenagers, parents can claim that their children’s problem is being caused by something else – teenage angst and over-dramatics. Parents will also refuse to put their children on these drugs for various others reasons. Sometimes they may be against medication for religious reasons or because they do not want other aspects of their child’s personality to be affected. The reality is, however, that these medications could save their child’s life because their mental illness is being caused by an actual trauma, not typical teenage problems. Doctor-patient confidentiality shouldn’t stand in the way of a minor getting medical treatment that they need, but too often it does. When the sickness is in your body, you should have the right to decide how to handle it.

Though sexual health and treatment of mental illnesses are two opposite ends of a broad spectrum that doctor- patient confidentiality covers, it only serves as proof. It demonstrates the wide range of medical areas that can become an issue if a teen does not have enough say in their medical treatment. It is the minor’s body that is affected by the treatment or lack thereof, and no one else should get to make a decision that affects such a personal domain. At the age of 16, minors are old enough to drive a car and give consent to legally have sex. These are very mature decisions, and if a teen is deemed mature and stable enough to have these rights, they should be trusted enough to have the same right in their own medical decisions. Doctor- patient confidentiality exists to protect the rights of patients, but it certainly does not protect the rights of minors. No one should have the power over a mature teen’s body, and the laws of our country need to reflect that. 

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Doctor-Patient Confidentiality Must Protect Young Patients