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Complying with Reporting Duties

Irrespective of personal beliefs, physicians must comply with reporting laws. A physician should never withhold information or give false information to protect a patient's privacy. Although violators are seldom prosecuted, interfering with a public health investigation is a crime in most states. There is a much greater chance that a failure to comply with a reporting duty will result in a medical malpractice lawsuit. Failure to report an infectious person or a dangerous condition can make the physician liable for any harm to the patient or anyone else that compliance with the reporting duty would have protected.

Legally required disease control reporting is not subject to informed consent; the patient has no right to veto the reporting. The reportability of a disease should not be part of the informed consent for laboratory tests. Information about the reportability of a disease might deter some patients from consenting to testing. While this might protect the patient's autonomy, it can threaten the public's health. The physician does not need a medical records release for disease reporting because neither the physician nor the patient has the right to refuse the release of information.

Physicians must never knowingly report false information to public health authorities. The physician is liable for any injuries occasioned by the false report.

This does not mean that the physician must personally investigate the information that patients provide. It does mean that the physician must truthfully report what is known to him or her. The reality is that very few physicians do not know their patients' correct names and addresses. It is the rare patient who pays cash for medical care and never requires a prescription or other order that requires correct identity.

A physician who provides information in good faith is not liable if the information is incorrect. Conversely, a physician who intentionally provides false information may be liable for negligence per se. This means that the reporting statute establishes the proper standard of care and the physician is liable as a matter of law. (See Chapter 6.) Depending on the nature of the state's reporting laws, a physician's malpractice insurance may not cover damages due to knowingly breaking the law. Most states also allow the board of medical examiners to restrict or revoke a physician's license for failing to comply with reporting laws.

Most state laws also require laboratories to report communicable diseases. The physician reports the clinical diagnosis, and the laboratory reports the results of tests that indicate the presence of a reportable disease. When the laboratory reports a disease, this does not obviate the physician's duty to report. Physicians who run laboratories in their offices may have to file duplicate reports if they perform the laboratory tests that establish the diagnosis.

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