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When Can Confidentiality Be Broken?

When Can Confidentiality Be Broken?

When can confidentiality be broken? Learn when wellness professionals should or must report client behaviors. Plus, find out what constitutes a breach.


In the wellness industry, client privacy is the foundation of a trusted relationship. People feel comfortable opening up, knowing the listener won’t leak their conversations. But violating confidentiality can destroy that bond and instigate a lawsuit. 

As such, wellness professionals take confidentiality seriously, with an insurance policy that covers data breaches, a contract outlining how to keep client information safe, and a communication strategy to create an open, trusting environment.  

Breaking confidentiality isn’t something physicians, therapists, or coaches are apt to do. But there are times when it’s the only choice. 

So when can confidentiality be broken? Here’s everything you need to know.

Understanding confidentiality

Professionals in roles influencing clients’ physical, mental, or financial health hold themselves to strict confidentiality terms. They vow to keep client information, such as medical histories and personal records, private and safe. 

Any data a client shares with a wellness, healthcare, coaching, or consulting professional should be restricted. This includes information shared on forms and in conversation. If the professional helping the client needs to store sensitive data, such as their name, address, or payment information, they must do so securely, fulfilling their duty to protect the patient’s privacy.

When wellness workers follow their professions’ ethical standards around confidentiality, they foster a trustworthy environment with clients. Safe spaces encourage more honest, productive work between a coach, therapist, or another mentor and a client.  

Why is confidentiality important?

From day one, professionals must build a trusting environment with clients by making services confidential from top to bottom. Keep a client’s data and payment information safe using secure platforms, and let clients know they can open up freely in nonjudgmental sessions. 

When you establish confidentiality: 

  • Clients feel better about sharing their weaknesses, roadblocks, and insecurities. When clients confide in you, they provide more honest information about their state, and you make more significant strides in helping them. 
  • Clients take your business more seriously and rest easier knowing they’re in good hands. Process client information safely, never share it with third parties, and keep messaging outside sessions to assure clients they can share intimate details without hesitation. 
  • You protect your business and yourself against legal action. Whether you’ve taken an oath or written a contract stipulating confidentiality terms, you’ve communicated how seriously you keep information safe. When you break this contract, a client can sue you for a breach of confidentiality. 

What is breaching confidentiality?

No professional wants to release private information, even accidentally. So what constitutes a breach of confidentiality? 

A confidentiality breach is sharing information with third parties without authorization from the data owner. Confidentiality breaches are often unintentional. Unlike when professionals should or must break confidentiality, breaches may result from mistakes. Here’s a confidentiality breach example: you accidentally send sensitive information about a client to another client or a third party who shouldn’t have access to it.


When can you break confidentiality?

In an ideal world, no one should break confidentiality, and that’s clear to professionals who regard their work commitment to clients. But sometimes, sharing confidential information is the correct choice to keep a client safe or protect your business. 

The following are situations in which professionals in coaching, consulting, or healthcare roles may break confidentiality: 

  • To protect a patient or client from self-harm: According to doctor-patient privilege guidelines, if a client poses a threat to themself, the medical professional can release information to someone who can help. That someone could be a mental health professional who could monitor the person considering self-harm.
  • The client threatens others: If a client intends to harm others and a wellness professional feels it’s a serious threat, they can disclose this information to law enforcement or a mental health service for monitoring.
  • To obtain payment for the services offered: The American Psychological Association (APA) states that therapists can disclose minimal relevant information to verify accounts receivable. However, remember that this is a specific rule from a particular organization, and you should research your field’s regulations or seek legal advice before acting. 
  • The client or patient waives their confidentiality privileges: Clients can waive their rights if they want a wellness professional to share data with a third party. This external individual could be a physician or mental health professional who could provide information that improves patient care.

Although these situations call for a breach, we recommend thoroughly researching federal and state laws and regulations on mandatory reporting and codes of ethics your profession follows before taking action. 

When is it mandatory to break confidentiality?

Deciding when to break client confidentiality can be challenging. It’s a lot of responsibility to determine if another person poses a serious threat to themself or others. 

But there are exceptional circumstances that make the terms of breaking confidentiality much more apparent. In the following situations, therapists must notify third parties of a client’s behaviors. Again, it’s best to research the regulations for a specific field, as not all rules similarly apply to all wellness professionals. 

  • Suicide: If a client has plans or intends to commit suicide, report this individual for observation.  
  • Drug trafficking and terrorism: If a client describes a detailed plan about hurting another person, committing an act of terrorism, or trafficking drugs, report this behavior to law enforcement.
  • Child abuse: If a client admits to having experienced, formerly committed, or plans child abuse, seek third-party assistance. 

Run your wellness business without any challenges with Practice

Having to go through situations where you should or must break client confidentiality agreements is tough. While you don’t want to encounter these with a client and break their trust, you’re compelled to involve an external party to manage the circumstances. Add confidentiality breach clauses, which highlight cases where you’ll involve a third party, in your client contracts to avoid lawsuits. Encourage clients to review these contracts before signing them, and educate them about the importance of breaking confidentiality under severe conditions.   

At Practice, we’re all about helping you grow and protect your business. Head to our blog and read up on insurance for wellness freelancers, documents you should create before working with a client, and how to deal with difficult clients

We’ve also designed a Client Management Software, with coaches in mind, which keeps your clients’ data and payments safe and allows you to send messages and documents securely, minimizing risk. Try it today.

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