When should a doctor betray a patient's confidence? This week the Supreme Court of the State of Washington heard arguments on this question in a case that has profound implications for the doctor-patient relationship.
In the case, Volk v. DeMeerleer, a psychiatrist, Howard Ashby, was sued after a patient of his, Jan DeMeerleer, shot and killed an ex-girlfriend and her 9-year-old son before killing himself. (Mr. DeMeerleer also stabbed another son, who survived.) The estate of the victims, Rebecca and Phillip Schiering, took legal action, arguing that Dr. Ashby was liable because he had not warned the Schierings. A lower court ruled in Dr. Ashby's favor on the grounds that Mr. DeMeerleer, who had occasionally voiced homicidal fantasies, had made no specific threats toward the Schierings during his treatment.
But last November an appeals court reversed that judgment, asserting that doctors could be required to warn "all foreseeable victims" of potentially dangerous patients in their care. Whether the attack on the Schierings was foreseeable, the court said, should be decided by a jury.
Though the murder of innocents is obviously a tragedy, the Washington State Supreme Court should overturn the appeals court's decision. Not only does that judgment greatly expand the circumstances in which psychiatrists would be required to violate patients' confidentiality; those violations in the end would also not serve the purpose for which they were intended.
Throughout history, doctor-patient confidentiality has been a cornerstone of Western medical practice. The duty to keep patients' information private is written into the codes of ethics of medical organizations, and is even in the Hippocratic oath: "What I may see or hear in the course of treatment," it says, "I will keep to myself."