The importance of communication in everyday life is one that cannot be understated. Just like in many other fields, psychology has a classification system that seeks to classify communication as the basis of how such communication can be used. Corey, Marianne, and Callanan (2011) point out that when it comes to psychological communication, patient-therapist communication to be specific, the classification system outlines three types of communication, and these are confidential, private and privileged information. The law has different provisions for each of these three distinct modes of communication in terms of how they can be used to protect the client, the therapist, and the legal provisions that can be used as a basis of wavering these provisions. This paper will discuss these three types of communication, including their legal definitions, how they can be used to protect both the client and the therapists and circumstances under which such protection can be waived.
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The terms private, confidential, and privilege when referring to communication between two parties simply imply that the information passed on through any form of communication between the parties involved should only be limited to the said parties. This, therefore, implies that the communicating parties have made it clear to one another that information passed on during private, privileged or confidential communication should not be made available to any third party unless there is implicit or express permission to do so (Corey, Marianne & Callanan, 2011). However, the above-mentioned situation only applies to the general context of these three types of communication. This is because, in the legal sense, the three types mentioned above of communication and the information exchanged thereon each has its legal interpretation that defines the circumstances under which they can be used and the legal protection if any that can be accorded to guard any unauthorized disclosure by the communicating parties.
Starting with privileged communication, this is a type of communication between the therapist and the client in which the client reveals privileged information to the therapist. The information, in this case, is said to be ‘privileged’ because the patient has been extended the right to take all legal measures under his/her disposal to ensure that the therapist does not disclose any such information (Corey, Marianne & Callanan, 2011). This, therefore, implies that the ‘privilege’ in the case of this type of communication is accorded to the patient, whereby they are the ones that get to reap the benefits of the legal protection offered in this type of communication. Corey, Marianne, and Callanan (2011) assert that all privileged communication has an inherent characteristic that makes an implicit requirement upon the communicating parties that such information is to be kept privilege. For this reason, the law defines various instances where the communication taking place between the parties involved is deemed to be privileged.
The second type of communication is confidential communication. Just like in the case of privileged communication, confidential communication is also a form of communication in which the parties who are to be privy to the information exchanged during such communication have been pre-determined. This, therefore, implies that in the case of patient-therapist communication, the information exchanged during such communication should only remain with the two parties. However, unlike privileged communication, confidential information does not enjoy such extensive legal protection because the duty to maintain the confidentiality of this kind of information lies with the therapist, and the obligation to honor such confidentiality is a moral and ethical issue rather than a legal one (Jacob, Decker & Hartshorne, 2010).
The third classification, when it comes to therapist-client communication is a private communication. The term ‘private’ is sort of an umbrella term, meaning that it covers all such communication whose content in terms of information exchanged is intended to be limited to only those parties that the information has been passed to. This implies that both confidential and privilege communication are forms of private communication in which the information exchanged during such communication is not intended for third parties (Jacob, Decker & Hartshorne, 2010).
There are various circumstances under which the privilege, privacy, or confidentiality of the three forms of private communication can be legally waivered, thus exposing the content of such communication to the third parties. Jacob, Decker, and Hartshorne (2010) point out that even though there are various legal provisions aimed at protecting the content of private communication, these provisions can be waivered in the case of the therapist or counselor in question is exercising his/her duty to warn. Jacob, Decker, and Hartshorne (2010) explains that the ‘duty to warn’ is a legal duty that requires those under obligation to maintain the integrity of private communication to warn any identifiable third party if they have information that implies that the patient plans to either kill or cause significant harm to these parties. In addition to causing any damage to third parties, the therapist is also within his/her rights to exercise the duty to warn if they have information that indicates that the patient is likely to cause significant harm to themselves. Thus, the therapist will not be violating any legal requirements if he/she furnishes such information to the relevant authorities. Finally, if the therapist has reason to believe that the patient is likely to commit a serious crime, then they are also duty-bound to reveal such information to the relevant authorities to enable them to prevent such a crime from happening. The duty to protect is a fundamental concept since it implies wavering the ‘privilege’ enjoyed by various forms of private communication, and I think this would be an essential issue to address with a patient at the onset of a treatment program.
Corey, G., Marianne, S., & Callanan, P. (2011). Issues and Ethics in the Helping Professions. New York: Cengage Learning.
Jacob, S., Decker, D.M., & Hartshorne, T.S. (2010). Ethics and Law for School Psychologists. New York: John Wiley & Sons.