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Patricia Hewitt, England's health secretary, has said that some Muslim GPs may be divulging details of the sexual health of female Muslim patients to family members.
Her comments drew an angry response from Muslim GPs, who said that her claims were based only on anecdotal evidence.
However, Mrs Hewitt, who represents a constituency in Leicester with a large ethnic minority community, said, “I have had Muslim women give me chapter and verse on very distressing breaches of confidentiality by Muslim GPs.
“Some women patients in some Muslim communities are feeling they can't trust their own GP, who is from the same community and knows their extended family.
“If they go for particular situations, such as a sexual health problem or domestic violence, they fear they will share that information with other members of the family or community.”
Mrs Hewitt made her comments in an interview with the magazine for GPs Pulse (29 Mar, p 2).
Vijoy Singh, chairman of the Leicestershire and Rutland local medical committee, which covers Ms Hewitt's constituency, said, “No GP would break confidentiality, because if they break it they are liable to be sued. She's out of touch.”
Mrs Hewitt cited a report published in November last year by the Muslim Women's Network, which was based on conversations with Muslim women throughout the country, as further evidence of her concerns. The report, She Who Disputes (www.thewnc.org.uk/pubs/shewhodisputesnov06.pdf), noted: “Health services were criticised for being insensitive and there was repeated concern that GPs from within the community could not be trusted to maintain patient confidentiality.
“Women reported not being able to talk to them about domestic violence, or to come out to them as lesbians, because they feared GPs would pass information on to patients' families.”
The Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris, a member of the BMA's medical ethics committee, said, “I am certain that GPs of all races and backgrounds are aware of their responsibilities about respecting medical confidentiality and the consequences of not doing so. It is a fundamental part of ethical medical practice.
“Muslim women should be told what the position is, and GP practices should take steps to remind all patients that their privacy will be respected. Unfortunately, anonymous and unsubstantiated allegations of actual breaches of confidence do not get us very far and run the risk of stigmatising Muslim GPs.”
A spokeswoman for the General Medical Council said, “The GMC is aware that some groups of patients may have added concerns about the confidentiality of their personal information.” But she noted that these concerns applied to other groups, such as young patients, as well as Muslim women.
She confirmed that in the past year 11 doctors had been referred to fitness to practise hearings for allegations involving the intentional disclosure of patients' information. She was not, however, able to disclose their names or religious affiliations.