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Ask the Experts

Question:

Is personal information about substance abuse, including drugs and alchohol that are provided by a patient or family member, considered private or is the psychiatrist under obligation to report any of these things to law enforcement?

Answered by: Paul Appelbaum

Information about a patient that is communicated to a psychiatrist in the course of treatment is protected from disclosure by federal and state law. That includes information about substance abuse (and there are even stricter rules about disclosure of involvement in substance abuse programs that receive federal assistance). However, as with all rules on medical privacy, there are exceptions, including threats to the safety of the patient or a third party, court-ordered disclosures, and child abuse. Unless a someone is in danger, though, psychiatrists do not have an obligation spontaneously to disclose treatment-related information to law enforcement.