Is clients’ information confidential? What will a clinical psychologist do to protect the confidentiality of the clients?

In my clinical practice, it is common for my clients to ask me whether his or her information will be kept confidential. According to the code of ethics of the Hong Kong Institute of Clinical Psychologists, a clinical psychologist should keep the information acquired from clients for psychological assessment or treatment purpose confidential. Why is confidentiality issue so important in psychotherapy and psychological assessment?

The confidentiality issue is based on the moral principle that the clinician should put first priority in maintaining the well-being of the clients. A clinical psychologist should promote the clients’ welfare and avoid actions that could harm the clients. In fact, when the clients understand their information will be kept confidential, they may be more open in disclosing their personal issues that will be conducive to an effective therapeutic relationship.

At the beginning of the psychological assessment or psychotherapy, a clinical psychologist will inform the client about the confidentiality issues. The client is informed that unless consent is obtained, his or her information disclosed will be kept confidential. Exceptional circumstances for the breach of the confidentiality, such as to protect the personal safety of the clients or to provide necessary information as requested by the court, should be discussed with the clients.

In fact, there are gray areas in which therapeutic discretion is required. For instance, it is important to strive a balance between protecting the confidentiality of information disclosed by an adolescent client and disclosing necessary information acquired to the parents. A clinical psychologist may discuss the issue of confidentiality with all parties involved when treating an adolescent client at the beginning of the therapy. Sometimes, clinical psychologist may obtain private agreement with the parents to withhold their request for information, so that the adolescent may have a greater sense of privacy in the therapeutic relationship. The parents will also be informed that the confidentiality will be breached when the life or safety of the adolescent is endangered.

A professional clinical psychologist will try one’s best to ensure the confidentiality of the clients’ information. For example, the therapy room should be fitted with soundproof materials to prevent therapeutic conversations from leaking. Caution about administrative actions, such as leaving voice messages to clients in their office or exposing other clients’ files to people waiting in the reception area should be made.

Confidentiality issue is one of the most important areas to be addressed by a clinical psychologist. For the benefit of those who seek psychological services, it is important to make sure the clinician one consults has a registration with a well-recognized professional body. This is to make sure that the clinician will act according to the code of ethics of one’s professional body.  In this way, clients who seek help can ensure their privacy being protected.

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