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A South African question

Martin Rosenbaum | 14:16 UK time, Monday, 15 October 2007

The principle that an individual's medical history should be private and not public information goes back to the Hippocratic Oath. The confidentiality of the patient-doctor relationship has been an assumption of medical ethics ever since and has been acknowledged by exemptions in freedom of information laws worldwide.

And the secrecy of a dead person's medical records was upheld only last month by the Information Tribunal, after a hospital had refused to supply details to a mother about the treatment of her dead daughter. (Although it should be noted that the general position on a dead person's medical records is nuanced and not always clear).

But are there times when it's in the public interest for a living individual's medical records to be public and reported in the media? It looks like this issue may now come under even more scrutiny in South Africa in the row over the health minister Mantombazana Tshabalala-Msimang.

And it won't be the first time a politician's medical history has raised questions, from Tony Blair to Francois Mitterand.

So what was it that Hippocrates actually promised? Only to keep secret that which should not be divulged.

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