Background: Confidentiality is considered a cornerstone of the medical consultation. However, the telephone, previously used mainly to negotiate appointments, has become increasingly employed as a means of consultation and may pose new problems in respect to maintaining confidentiality.
Objective: As part of a qualitative investigation into the views of patients, doctors, nurses and administrative staff on the use of telephone consulting in general practice, we set out to explore the impact of the use of this medium on perceptions of confidentiality.
Method: We used focus groups of purposively selected patients, clinicians and administrative staff in urban and rural areas.
Results: Fifteen focus groups comprising 91 individuals were convened. Participants concerns centred on overheard conversations, the receptionist role in triage, difficulty of maintaining confidentiality in small close-knit communities, errors in identification, third party conversations and answering machines. Telephone consulting, depending on the circumstances, could pose a risk or offer a solution to maintaining confidentiality.
Conclusions: Many of the concerns that patients and health care staff have around confidentiality breaches both on the telephone and face to face are amenable to careful management. Although rare, identification error or fraud can be a potentially serious problem and further thought needs to be given to the problem of misidentification on the telephone and the use of passwords considered.