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How does my therapist know that? Isn’t counseling confidential?

Posted Dec 05 2012 12:22am
A medical record folder being pulled from the ...

A medical record folder being pulled from the records (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Did my last therapist tell?

This comes up a lot when people move from provider to provider. It especially happens when you see multiple people in the same agency. No not everything you told your old therapist will be kept secret from your new one. WHY?

Laws about confidentiality make a distinction between “Use” and “Disclosure” of information. If you are in the hospital anyone who is treating you needs to be able to look at your record and see what medications you are on, what procedures you have had and what allergies you may have. Anyone who treats you in the future at that agency probably has the right to look at your old record and see what was done to you. The same applies to psychotherapy.

Everyone at the hospital does not get to look at anyone’s medical record just because they want to see it. The only reason to access a medical record should be for the purpose of treatment. People have gotten fired for looking up someone’s medical record just because they were curious. Even looking in medical records to see if a famous or infamous person was treated at your hospital can get you fired. But if you are treating a client you may need to know what is in their record.

Psychotherapists do and can share records and that is considered “use” not “disclosure.” Laws about confidentiality primarily relate to disclosure. Some of this has to do with law, for that see a lawyer. As a therapist though, I find this is an important issue to many of my clients and they need to understand how our system works.  

It is considered good practice to separate psychotherapy notes from your general medical file. Everyone who treats you in the emergency room for an accident does not need to know about your marital problems.

We also don’t need a list of the names you or your spouse calls each other. What the counselor wants to know is that you two are having conflicts and that you resort to name calling with each other rather than problem solving. One or two examples will suffice here. Long transcripts of the argument might be interesting in a movie script but they don’t need to be in psychotherapy notes.

Clients sometimes move from therapist to therapist. Sometimes clients want a new counselor, some therapists are known to “fire” clients for a variety of reasons. Ethically we should suggest a change of provider if we feel that we are not able to help a client. If your counselor retires you may be assigned a new one.

When the client changes therapist we do not as a rule start a new file. Would you want to go through all those tests and lab work every time you saw a different doctor? Same with taking a life history. It should be in your chart. The new provider should review your chart so they should have some knowledge of what your last therapist was treating you for and why.  

Charts are needed to provide continuity of care as well as other reasons. Clients have told me they resent that the new therapist knows things they had not told them. They probably read this in the chart though they may have been briefed on the case by the last provider also. If the file moved to a new agency there probably was a release of information but at the same agency the old paperwork still applies.

Personally I like to meet the client first and form my own opinion about them, then review the chart. The risk is that the client will have to tell me something they just told the other counselor last week. The benefit is that in telling me again they may say something they did not say last time or I may ask a different question. A fresh set of eyes can sometimes see something new.

More than once after doing a new assessment I looked at the file and can see why the last counselor came up with the diagnosis they did, but having new facts I don’t necessarily agree with that opinion.

So yes, the new therapist may know something you did not tell them. That they were filled in by your previous provider is not a violation of confidentiality. Did you really want to have to retell your whole life history to a new person before getting down to the work of solving life’s problems?  

The bigger question is why you would want to hide things from the therapist you are seeing now?  They will have trouble helping you if you don’t tell them what the situation really is.

The most important person for you to trust and get honest with is you. Some clients hide things from their counselor because they don’t want to face the fact that they have a particular problem.

The results of counseling are mostly about the relationship. We try to spend time up front getting to know clients and building trust. Some clients have more trust issues than others. If you are not sure you trust your therapist, ask them questions. The names of their kids and their spouse are not important but their views on how to raise a child or have a good relationship might matter to you.

You should be able to rely on your provider to maintaining your confidentiality and not disclosing your information to someone who has no reason to know. Don’t expect one doctor or therapist to try to hide your symptoms from another professional who is treating you.

The bottom line? If you want help in recovering from your issues, whatever they are, you need to get honest with yourself and your counselor or find a provider you feel you can trust.

For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page . For information about my other writing work beyond this blog there is also a Facebook authors page, in its infancy, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at . Thanks to all who read this blog. 

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