5. Professional or medical secrecy

Healthcare professionals are bound by professional or medical secrecy. They must treat all the information they receive in confidence. As a rule, they may not forward information to third parties without consent. 

The practical situation

The purpose of professional secrecy is to protect patients and their interests. It forms the basis of the relationship of trust between healthcare professionals and patients. The following situations are the only ones in which information about patients may be revealed:

  • A patient has authorised a healthcare professional to give information to third parties.
  • A healthcare professional is required by law (to report transmissible diseases or suspicious deaths, for example) or authorised to provide information to the authorities (to report unfitness to drive, for example).

Release from professional secrecy

If healthcare professionals are not authorised either by patients or by law to reveal information, they can ask the competent authority in their canton to release them from their professional secrecy obligation if there is an important reason for doing so. The authority will then carefully consider whether the interest of the affected third party in receiving this information outweighs the need to uphold professional secrecy. This is the case, for example, when a doctor informs a patient’s life partner about the patient’s serious transmissible disease, or wants to tell grieving relatives about the cause of the patient’s death.

Can my doctor give information about me to other healthcare professionals?

Doctors can, indeed must, share information with the other healthcare professionals involved in your treatment in order to ensure the best possible care for you. However, they are still bound to maintain professional secrecy towards other healthcare professionals.

Does professional secrecy still apply if relatives want to know about my health?

Healthcare professionals may only inform relatives about your state of health with your permission. However, if you are not capable of judgement and have not designated a representative, doctors can give information to your relatives.

What information can my doctor pass on to my employer?

Certificates of fitness for work may only contain information about your fitness for work.

Are healthcare professionals bound by professional secrecy after I have died?

Professional secrecy applies even after death. After you have died, your relatives can only be given information if you have made express provision for this (living will, power of attorney). Otherwise the healthcare professional in question will have to apply to the competent authority for release from their obligation.

What if I am still a minor?

Minor patients who are capable of judgement are entitled to secrecy as regards their state of health. Minors are considered to be capable of judgement from the age of 10 to 15, depending on the situation and issue. Healthcare professionals who want to involve parents in decisions or at least keep them informed will explain to minor patients how important it is to share information with their parents and advise them accordingly. Once patients have all the facts, they can decide which information can be given to their parents (for example about an illness that requires nursing at home, or the cost of a treatment).
Healthcare professionals who believe that the development of a minor patient is at risk, or that the patient has been harmed physically, mentally or sexually can or must (depending on cantonal legislation) report the case to the competent authority. In case of doubt, healthcare professionals can contact the cantonal medical officer and discuss the situation under conditions of guaranteed patient anonymity.
Medical decisions concerning minor patients not capable of judgement are taken by the person who has parental custody.

We cannot offer personal advice. Please refer to the page Options of Counselling and contact the appropriate office. Many thanks.

Last modification 08.07.2020

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Federal Office of Public Health FOPH
Healthcare and Related Professions Division
Health Equity Section
Schwarzenburgstrasse 157
3003 Bern

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