Privacy: Patient Safety Outweighs Patient Privacy Regarding Controlled-Substances Prescribing Practices, California High Court Rules

October 4, 2017 | Strategic Insights for Health System


​The California Supreme Court, weighing the right of patient privacy against the public interest in protection against dangerous controlled-substances prescribing practices, concluded that the state's medical board did not violate patients' privacy rights under the California constitution in a recent case. In the course of investigating a physician, the board obtained patient data from the state's controlled-substances prescription monitoring program without the patients' knowledge or consent and without obtaining a warrant or subpoena. The ruling terminated a lawsuit that a physician brought against the state medical board claiming that the board's action in obtaining his patients' prescription data in the course of an investigation violated their rights to privacy. The board had investigated the plaintiff physician and subsequently disciplined him using information it obtained from the state's controlled-substance prescription monitoring program. The board suspended the physician's license for unprofessional conduct, negligence, and failure to maintain adequate records.

The high court, while recognizing that patients have a “reasonable expectation of privacy," stated that the board was justified in obtaining patient information from the program's database without the patients' knowledge or consent or by subpoena. California has a dual interest, the court explained, in protecting the public from the unlawful use and diversion of a particularly dangerous class of prescription drugs and in protecting patients from negligent or incompetent physicians. In defense of its action, the board asserted that it needed real-time access to controlled-substances prescribing data in order to closely monitor the prescribing and dispensing of controlled substances and to spot-check prescribers for compliance with the laws and standards of care governing controlled-substance prescriptions. Such monitoring, the board claimed, can help in preventing,...

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