Patients recording consultations

Our guidance answers if patients can record doctors without permission or covertly, how to respond when a patient asks to record their appointment and what to do if a covert recording is posted online.

Location: UK
Audience: All doctors
Updated: Tuesday 8 September 2020
Justice scales article illustration

Patients are increasingly asking doctors if they can record or video consultations on their phones or other devices.

In some circumstances, permitting a patient to record a consultation who may otherwise struggle to remember or understand is likely to amount to a reasonable adjustment requirement under equality legislation.

Given the benefits to patients, and that, in law, recordings for private purposes are seen as a form of note-taking, we believe there is benefit for both patients and doctors in supporting consensual recordings.

 

Benefits of using recordings

When made consensually, recordings can benefit both patients and doctors by:

  • enabling patients to remember important advice, particularly where there are language barriers
  • providing a copy of the consultations when patients may have been distressed 
  • giving patients more time to process information
  • helping patients and their family members where patients may be experiencing memory loss or have some cognitive impairment
  • including patients' family members in their care and decision making
  • helping patients to remember if the information is particularly complex.

 

Can patients record consultations without doctors’ agreement?

Legally, patients do not need a doctor’s permission to make an audio or visual recording of a consultation for their private use – although as a matter of courtesy we believe they should seek agreement.

Information disclosed during a consultation is confidential to the patient. Therefore, patients do not need doctors’ permission to make an audio or visual recording of a consultation.

When a recording is made to keep a personal record – for the patient’s private use – it is seen in law as a form of note-taking.

Where a patient makes a recording without permission, doctors have no legal redress (unless posted online - see below). Although we recognise that doctors’ privacy is to some extent in play where recordings are made, this guidance reflects the legal position.

Having said that, in our view, any patient wishing to make a recording of a consultation should seek the agreement of the doctor, even though it is not a legal requirement. It is a matter of ordinary courtesy and respect and is more likely to lead to a positive and trusting relationship.

 

Recording third parties

Sometimes recordings may be made either overtly or covertly where other patients may be present or nearby and can be overheard. All patients have privacy rights and no recording of other patients must be made without their explicit consent. Any such recording is likely to be an interference with their privacy rights under article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

NHS facilities will have local policies on the use of recording devices. These will usually prohibit recordings in any area where the privacy of other patients may be infringed upon, such as communal areas. We recommend that all practices and clinics adopt a version of these policies.

 

When a patient asks to record a consultation

We encourage doctors to support patient requests to record their consultations.

Although we encourage doctors to enable patients to take recordings, we understand some doctors may find it intrusive. They may feel that it undermines trust and changes the nature of the doctor-patient relationship. They may also be concerned that patients will use recordings for potential complaints or litigation. 

If you have concerns

You should sensitively explore the reasons the patient wants to make the recording to allay any concerns you may have.

We recognise that in exceptional circumstances, some patients may use recordings to pursue a complaint or a legal claim against a doctor. In our view, where doctors are acting professionally, they should have nothing to fear – keeping clear and accurate records of clinically relevant information is a staple of good medical practice.

Medical defence organisations suggest that where legal cases arise, most recordings actually support the actions of doctors.

If you are still unhappy with being recorded

You should tell the patient and sensitively explain your reasons. If the patient insists, it is important to remember that you still owe them a duty of care. Medical defence bodies advise doctors not to refuse to continue with the consultation.

In our view, doctors should not refuse to continue with the consultation unless the patient can be seen in a safe and timely fashion by another colleague who is willing to agree to the recording.

 

Covert recordings

Understandably, many doctors express concern about patients making covert recordings. This can be interpreted as a sign that trust is lacking or that the patient may be considering a complaint or legal action.

One reason we encourage doctors to agree to patients making recordings is that they are less likely to make them covertly.

It is not illegal for patients to make recordings covertly. As a matter of courtesy, patients should seek doctors’ agreement before recording a consultation. 

‘Personal data processed by an individual only for the purposes of the individual’s personal, family or household affairs are exempt from data protection principles.’

Section 36 of the Data Protection Act 1998

If you suspect a patient is covertly recording you

You may consider this to be a breach of trust and an invasion of privacy. In these circumstances, we recommend you discuss the issue with the patient and explore the reasons they are making the recording, addressing any concerns they may have where appropriate.

One possible option is to invite them to make the recording openly. As discussed above, medical bodies do not advise doctors to end the consultation and refuse to treat the patient. 

 

Consultation recordings posted online

Where recordings of healthcare staff are posted without agreement in publicly accessible media, their privacy rights are engaged and they can request they are taken down.

This is an area of uncertainty and we are not aware of any definitive case law.

Our legal advice suggests that a patient posting recordings of consultations online without the doctor's consent falls outside the personal use exceptions of the Data Protection Act. Doctors’ article 8 privacy rights are also likely to be at play.

Where doctors become aware that recordings of them are posted online, and they did not agree to either the recording or posting, they are entitled to request they are taken down.

We recommend in the first instance a consensual approach is sought. You can copy and paste our template letter below to make this request.

Template letter to patients

Dear (insert name),

It has been brought to our attention that recordings you have made of a member or members of our staff have been posted online without our agreement.

We take every effort to ensure that we develop open and trusting professional relationships with all our patients, and will support patients seeking to record information in order to promote their care and treatment. We recognise that legally patients are entitled to make a recording of a consultation for their private use.

This does not, however, extend to publishing this material without agreement in publicly accessible media, such as via the internet or social media sharing platforms. In these circumstances, advice from the British Medical Association, our trade union and professional body, indicates that our privacy rights are engaged and that this may also amount to a breach of the Data Protection Act. It is likely therefore that we would be able to take legal action.

I am therefore writing to politely request that this material is taken down.

I would be very happy to talk about this, and our general policy with regard to recording consultations, in person.

Yours sincerely,

(insert name)

If a patient will not remove the recording

Doctors could bring a claim on the basis that the publication amounts both to a misuse of their private information and a breach of article 5 of the GDPR.

Depending on the nature of the posting, it is also possible that offences could be committed under other acts, including the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, the Malicious Communications Act 1988 or the Communications Act 2003.

Where publication is potentially defamatory of doctors, actions for libel can be brought in the High Court. This is where publication causes a doctor ‘loss in their trade or profession, or causes a reasonable person to think worse of him or her.’

The outcome of any claim will always turn on the facts of the case and legal advice should always be sought.