If you’ve been misusing drugs, you may be deeply worried about other people finding out. Will they do something that damages your reputation or triggers legal repercussions?

A medical setting is one scenario in which your drug use may come to light. Whether you’re in a doctor’s office or at an emergency room, what will happen if there are drugs in your system? Addressing this question can help you better understand your rights and make you less reluctant to seek the medical treatments you need.

Protection Through Doctor-Patient Confidentiality

One of your nightmares may involve doctors immediately calling the police after learning about your drug use. But this drastic action usually doesn’t occur. Powerful regulations limit the circumstances in which doctors can reach out to the police or to anyone else.

Doctors and other reputable medical providers are legally obligated to work with strict confidentiality. They must follow the rules spelled out by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Along with HIPAA, there are other regulations that protect your privacy, particularly the Confidentiality of Substance Use Disorder Patient Records, 42 CFR Part 2.

These regulations cover multiple aspects of confidentiality, such as protecting patients’ identifying information and requiring patients’ consent to share information between different medical entities. Medical providers face steep penalties for violations. The punishments include fines and potential prison time.

Partly because of these legal constraints, doctors are extremely careful about confidentiality. They’re also trained to prioritize a patient’s well-being over punitive measures. By and large, they want to see you benefiting from treatment and improving your health instead of heading to jail. Even if they personally disapprove of your drug misuse, their ethical training and their industry’s regulations keep them from betraying your trust.

When Do Doctors Contact the Police?

Although confidentiality is a critical principle for medical providers, sometimes they’re obligated to share information about you with the police.

In certain situations, doctors may feel that a patient poses a serious and imminent danger to themselves or to others. A typical example involves a mental health professional who hears a patient describe their plans to soon kill someone. If the threat is credible, the mental health professional may reach out to the police and to anyone else who can help prevent the tragedy, such as the patient’s family, work supervisor, or school administrator.

In the context of drug use, a doctor may become alarmed if a patient talks about their plan to deliberately overdose later on in the day or to give drugs to a child. The fear of imminent harm, especially if it’s a threat to life, increases the chances that a doctor will disclose something to the police or to other people.

Beyond scenarios involving imminent harm, when else are doctors less restricted by confidentiality? The following are several examples:

  • They detect evidence of child abuse or neglect.
  • They’re treating a bullet wound or see other evidence of a gun crime.
  • They’ve been issued a court order, a warrant, or a subpoena. Even then, there may be situations where they can object to sharing certain kinds of information.
  • A patient’s death may have resulted from a crime.
  • There’s criminal conduct at the doctor’s workplace. For example, they catch someone stealing drugs from the premises.
  • When responding to an emergency outside of their workplace, they notice evidence of a crime.
  • They realize that they’re treating a fugitive, someone who has escaped from lawful custody.

Along with HIPAA and other federal regulations, states may have their own rules for how doctors should handle disclosures. Even in a dire situation, doctors are still obligated to comply with the law. They shouldn’t misrepresent you to the police or share more information than is legally necessary. Furthermore, they can explain the limits of the law to any police officers who try to overstep these bounds.

Are Doctors Obligated to Administer Drug Tests?

In most cases, doctors require the consent of patients before carrying out a drug test, especially if the patient is competent to make such a decision. If the patient is a minor, doctors need permission from a parent or guardian.

There are some situations, however, when a patient’s consent may not be necessary. For example, a court may issue an order to collect blood or urine samples from someone. Under the circumstances, doctors will generally comply.

Why Is It Important to Talk About Your Drug Use With Your Doctor?

Even though doctors work with a powerful commitment to confidentiality, you may still be hesitant about letting them know that you’re misusing drugs.

Maybe you’re worried about the fact that doctors maintain documentation. What if your health insurance company finds out about your drug problems? Under the Affordable Care Act, plans on the Health Insurance Marketplace can’t deny you coverage based on a substance use disorder. Still, you may have misgivings about putting that information out there.

You may also be worried that your doctors will look down on you for using drugs. Maybe they’ll treat you with less courtesy or overlook other problems you may have.

Although these concerns are understandable, it’s still crucial to discuss your drug use with a doctor. Keep in mind that millions of people around the U.S. misuse drugs. Doctors see it often and don’t find it shocking. As a group, they aim to give you the best care for your overall health and for your substance use disorder specifically.

Accurate Diagnoses

For an accurate medical diagnosis, you need to let doctors know about any substances that affect your health. Drugs produce a variety of short-term effects, such as heart arrhythmia and nausea. Long-term use may also lead to a wide variety of problems, including damage to the brain, liver, and kidneys.

Without information about your drug use, doctors will be less likely to understand and successfully treat your medical and psychological issues. They also won’t be able to give you medical advice that’s tailored to your specific needs.

Safe Prescribing

When doctors prescribe medications, they need to know about all of the substances you’re currently taking. Information about past drug use is also relevant, as it can give doctors insight about which medications are better for you than others.

Whether you’re drinking, using cocaine, or dipping into a friend’s stash of prescription drugs, you must let doctors know. Drugs may interact powerfully, even to the point of causing death. For example, mixing alcohol with various painkillers or with benzodiazepines can prove lethal.

Drug Treatment Assistance

Even if you don’t need a medical referral for a drug rehabilitation program, a doctor can provide you with guidance about addiction treatments. For example, they may help you with medical interventions during detoxification or recommend a reputable medical facility where you can safely go through withdrawal.

When you discuss rehab with them, they’ll point out issues that may affect your experiences during inpatient or outpatient programs. These include psychological or medical problems that need to be addressed along with the addiction. They may also want you to follow up with them once you’re out of rehab.

Although you may feel reluctant to talk about your drug misuse, remember that doctors can be an invaluable resource for treatment, guidance, and support. Sharing information about your drug use can help save your life and strengthen your health.

Contact NJ Addiction Resources

Don’t hesitate to contact us for further information about addiction treatments. You shouldn’t have to struggle with drug misuse or addiction on your own. We’ll help you find the best rehab programs and therapeutic interventions.