Privacy and Medicine

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date



Individuals, organizations and governments value and protect medical privacy. As a general rule, they strive to (1) restrict and secure what they deem to be sensitive medical information and biospecimens, (2) respect medically-related decisions by individuals and families and (3) honor community and legal expectations of privacy. For more than fifty years, philosophers and bioethicists have taken a keen interest in privacy issues. They have contributed to an expanding literature, some with practical applications, consisting of diverse perspectives on how privacy concepts and values are implicated in patient care and biomedical research.

The scope of this entry is “privacy” in the several varied and popular uses of the term employed in medicine and health research, including the controversial uses debated by philosophers. Most contemporary discussions of privacy and medicine concern the informational privacy of patients and research subjects, treated in Section 1, below. Medical record confidentiality is a frequent focus. This emphasis is neither surprising nor inappropriate given the problems, priorities and preoccupations of the digital age. Not to be overlooked, and covered here in Sections 2 and 5, philosophic discussion has extended beyond informational privacy, engaging the privacy implications of observing, touching and choosing for oneself in medical practice. These forms of privacy are sometimes referred to as physical and decisional privacy. Associational and proprietary concepts of privacy found in health-related dicussions and recognized by some philosophers are also briefly treated in below in Sections 3 and 4.

This entry principally deals with the professional work of physicians, nurses and other trained and licensed medical caregivers, along with hospitals, insurance companies and researchers. Privacy in relation to wellness and well-being are beyond the scope of this entry, except to the considerable extent that it prompts encounters with medical professionals and organizations. Wellness encounters with spiritual, fitness or non-medical beauty professionals are not discussed. Finally, while the privacy of patients and biomedical research subjects is the focus of this entry, philosophical questions concerning health professionals’ own privacy-related interests implicated in medical practice are recognized.


Privacy, information privacy, confidentiality, medicine, health policy, bodily integrity

Publication Title

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy