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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 March 2007, 15:58 GMT 16:58 UK
Health secretary in Muslim GP row
Patricia Hewitt
Patricia Hewitt said some Muslim women feared talking to their GP
Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt is embroiled in a row over whether some Muslim GPs are guilty of breaking the confidentiality of their patients.

Two medical magazines reported that Ms Hewitt said some Muslim women feared raising sensitive issues with their GP in case it got back to their families.

The Department of Health said she was not accusing GPs of breaking the rules.

Doctors leaders warned any breach in confidentiality would dealt with extremely seriously.

Some women patients feel they cannot trust their own GP, who knows the patient's extended families
Patricia Hewitt

Ms Hewitt was asked about the issue by reporters after addressing a meeting of the Fabian society.

She told Pulse magazine: "I have had Muslim women give me chapter and verse on very distressing breaches of confidentiality by Muslim GPs.

"Some women patients feel they cannot trust their own GP, who knows the patient's extended families."

"If they go and talk to him about a very difficult situation concerning domestic violence or sexual health problems they fear that he will share that with other members of the community. They are very close-knit communities."

Similar comments were reported in GP magazine.

But a Department of Health spokesperson said she did not say that some Muslim GPs are breaching patient confidentiality but that some Muslim women fear their GP will disclose information.

"The Secretary of State has simply recounted evidence from the Muslim Women's Network on Health that some Muslim women in some parts of the country are not going to see their GP because they are nervous about reporting certain problems."

Right to confidentiality

One woman who took part in the survey of more than 200 Muslim women said: "When I was younger - I grew up in Essex, a mixed community - there were only a few GPs the young women would go to - because GPs in the community felt able to pass information about your sexuality to your parents."

A spokesperson for the British Medical Association said: "All patients, from whatever ethnic group, have the right to expect confidentiality from their doctors.

"Breaching confidentiality is extremely serious and any doctor who does this must be prepared to justify their actions to the General Medical Council."

Dr Reefat Drabu, a GP in Eastleigh, Hampshire and chair of the Muslim Council of Britain's social and family affairs committee said there were no figures to back up Ms Hewitt's comments.

"As a Muslim doctor I find it very offensive that she raises the issue that we are any less capable of adhering to good practice."

She added that confidentiality was an issue that all patients asked about.

"We have to reassure patients that confidentiality part of a very important code of conduct we have to adhere to."

A spokesperson for the GMC said in the past 12 months, 11 doctors had been referred to a fitness to practise hearing for allegations over disclosure of patient information but there was no current data on what religious communities the doctors served.

"Every patient has a right to expect that information about them will be held in confidence by their doctors.

"The GMC is aware that some groups of patients may have added concerns about the confidentiality of their personal information. For example, anxiety about confidentiality is the biggest deterrent to young people seeking health advice."

Shadow Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, said: "These are very serious accusations, Patricia Hewitt must know that if she has evidence of such breaches of confidentiality she should refer them to the GMC.

"In any case, I do question whether it is at all helpful to make such generalised statements."

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