47

I study in the USA.

Can a professor ask me to waive my right to privacy so he can talk to my doctor about my medical condition? He says he needs that in order to allow me to take a make-up midterm for an exam that I missed, even though a medical note certifying my illness is provided.

Also, the doctor that gave the note is usually a nurse practitioner (NP), but he instead wants a note from a doctor of medicine (MD).

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  • 6
    What does the existing note actually say? At some institutions, it's not enough to provide a note that you went to a health care professional; it has to specifically state that you were diagnosed with something that prevented you taking the exam (and some schools also specify what kinds of medical officials can make that judgment). – 1006a May 24 '18 at 16:25
  • Comments have been moved to chat. Please see the above notice. – Wrzlprmft May 24 '18 at 20:13
  • 5
    A general comment: if someone is insisting that you should give them permission to do something, then no, they are not allowed to require you to give permission. – user9646 May 26 '18 at 21:15
  • @Kat The OP shouldn't need to be concerned with any specific authority. If any authority has a rule for this, it's relevant and worth learning about. Vagueness and generality aren't always bad. – Maxpm May 27 '18 at 0:17

10 Answers 10

96

That sounds like a big no to me, but that comes from Germany with very strict rules on privacy. Your medical condition is your thing, and yours alone. If you have a document that certifies your illnesss, that should be enough.

Check your university policies, what you need to provide in case off illness HAS to be written down somewhere. If it states there that a written thing is enough, it is enough. Point your professor to that document, if that does not help talk to faculty cousellors. They should be able to help you.

  • 86
    I would go one step further and definitely talk to the faculty counsellor about this. By asking alone the professor may be overstepping his boundaries far enough that officials should at least be aware of it. – xLeitix May 24 '18 at 11:05
  • 10
    Take care how you handle this, while the situation can get you a replacement exam - the professor could have the choice WHEN it will take place ie next week or next semester... – Solar Mike May 24 '18 at 11:14
  • 7
    @J.FabianMeier The sources already tell you that data protection officers pushed back hard against this, the second source even openly throws the question of compliance with the basic law into the room. Those articles are furthermore years old, and I have not seen such ridiculous request in recent times, so I'd guess this has been squashed, hard. – Polygnome May 24 '18 at 14:47
  • 3
    @Kimball In Gemany, everything that should reasonably have established procedures be written down will be written down. Either in law or in policy. We don't like eventualities. getting sick is commonplace enough that it warrants procedure. – Polygnome May 24 '18 at 16:02
  • 4
    I highly doubt the correctness of the answer .To my understanding a slip of someone like a nurse partitioner (-> not a doctor of medicine), is worth nothing in this regard in germany. He might not be allowed to ask about the sickness itself but asking that the note will be written by a doctor is the only way also in germany as far as I know. – Kami Kaze May 25 '18 at 10:50
47

I am not sure if it is relevant to your situation since you haven't mentioned a country (I am in the UK), however I have personally been asked a similar thing when the professor wanted to check that the medical note provided was indeed from my doctor and relevant to the allowances being made for me.

The privacy I was giving up by letting him talk about my condition was not for them to fully discuss the details of my illness, but instead to merely check that the note was real, that my illness did indeed prevent me from being able to take an exam. This was standard uni procedure, so should be documented for you to check if its something similar.

If you have data protection laws similar to the UK in your country then the doctor cannot even confirm that you exist to a 3rd party until you give them permission to discuss with that specific 3rd party, and if that is the case then it is perfectly reasonable for the university to request you give the doctors office permission to disclose that you are a patient, and that the letter is genuine.

Equally it is perfectly acceptable for you to only give the doctor's permission to give that specific information (and withhold any additional information) as it is your data, and they would be bound by the permissions you give them.

On the other hand if the university are asking for complete access that is a no go, but I think if you communicate more with the lecturer about what they actually want, it won't be as bad as giving them full access and details.

33

At my university (a well-off private university in the USA), there is an Office of Disability Services who, in situations like this, acts as the middle-man between doctors and professors to determine test accommodations. You fill out an accommodation application, your doctor fills out a form that this office supplies, you submit both to the office, then they meet with you and determine reasonable accommodation. The professor is then informed by this office what the accommodations are and is required to abide by them.

I bring this up so that you can check whether your university has a similar office or service. It's good in that the revelation of private medical information is contained only to a single office specifically designed to handle such information appropriately, and professors and other university members need not know the information, just the required accommodations.

If your university does not have such a service, then I don't know what to do, but I'd imagine (as others have pointed out) that there must exists some policy of what is an appropriate level of proof of necessity of medical accommodation, and if what your professor is asking exceeds that, then point them to the policy.

  • 3
    I would be shocked to learn of ANY college or university in the USA that does not have an office like this. – mweiss May 25 '18 at 15:45
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    This does not seem like a request for a disability-related test accommodation. At my school, this office would not get involved in this matter. – Scott Seidman May 25 '18 at 20:34
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    @ScottSeidman, at my school medical accommodations (even temporary ones) are handled by the disability office. – NeutronStar May 25 '18 at 20:38
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    @ScottSeidman My school (US) handles temporary things such as this. – mas May 26 '18 at 23:21
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    @ScottSeidman My school (US, private engineering school) has a vaguely named "Office of Undergraduate Education" which deals with things like this. I also googled a number of universities and I have not been able to find one without a similar policy, in fact most of them prohibit instructors from lowering grades due to absences which are approved by whatever office handles them. – cartographer May 28 '18 at 0:35
27

It is highly unethical for the professor to make this request. The professor is asking for the student to waive their right to medical privacy and in exchange all the professor will do is their job.

The professor has the right to contact the student's NP to confirm the information on the note and discuss whether student had a bona fide reason to miss the midterm. (I have done this.) However the nature of that reason is none of their business.

Whether and NP is good enough or an MD is required should be set out in the university's policies. If the university doesn't have a policy, then the department may. If the department doesn't, the policy should be on the information provided by the instructor. If there is no policy, then an NP should be as good as an MD, since making this sort of assessment is within the normal scope of practice for NPs (in most jurisdictions).

That said, the best advice for the student is to find out what their university's policies are on medical notes.

(I'm working in Canada. This would be the situation in Canada and I expect also in the U.S. and Europe. Other places could have other norms.)

  • 3
    Agree completely! You should be able to contact the medical provider to confirm the veracity of the claim, but not to get any information about the nature of the condition (other than that it would prevent the student from taking the exam). I have had a large number of students lately (4 or 5 a semester) bringing in notes from online doctors. This has been particularly frustrating to verify, and I suspect these docs are basically in the business of forging medical excuses. However, I cannot ever figure out how to actually contact the doctor. – Steven Gubkin May 24 '18 at 14:43
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    @StevenGubkin: over here (Germany) the doctor in question would not be allowed to tell the professor whether the student is their patient unless the student waived their privacy rights to that question. OTOH, sick certificates here are on official forms, so this question doesn't arise. And, if there's a suspicion that the certificate is a favor, you could ask the student to bring a certificate by the so-called Amtsarzt who is a doctor and public official at the local health authority. – cbeleites May 24 '18 at 16:33
  • @cbeleites in the US (and it seems like Canada is similar) really all we do is check the authenticity of the note. Sometimes offices (sadly) just start running off photocopies of the medical excuse forms and so even a real form can look incredibly fake. – guifa May 24 '18 at 19:44
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    Are you saying you called the doctor's office and asked if Jane Doe was a patient there? And they confirmed? That seems very unethical on the office's part. – Azor Ahai May 24 '18 at 21:42
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    @AzorAhai If the student submitted a note, he or she has already alleged that they are a patient there; the doctor's office should be able to confirm whether the note is authentic (in which case they haven't added any new info to what the student already disclosed) or not (in which case there isn't any doctor-patient relationship, so no doctor-patient confidentiality to be breached). – 1006a May 25 '18 at 16:59
17

As someone who has both been an undergraduate student and, oddly, served as Instructor of Record for a college-level undergraduate course, in the US:

  • it is completely reasonable for him to ask you for a doctor's note, and it is not too unreasonable to stipulate that the note come from a professional physician (MD, DO, DDS, etc.) and/or bear the letterhead of the clinic, etc. Use your judgement.

  • By HIPAA, your healthcare provider can't discuss anything about your treatment with others without your consent (barring a few exceptional cases). By FERPA, your professor can't discuss anything related to your education with others without your consent. So, neither of them can contact each other about you without your consent; a conversation between them would be even more off limits.

  • Give him a note signed by a MD and w/ the clinic's letterhead. This should be authoritative enough for every reasonable person. If he insists, say NO immediately.

  • Again, if he insists, he is treating you unfairly. Escalate the issue immediately. Especially, contact the following people, as you see fit:

    1. the department chair;
    2. your academic advisor (if this position exists at your school);
    3. your advising dean (if this office exists at your school);
    4. the Dean of Student Affairs (or equivalent), and/or his associates;
    5. your school's associate dean for undergraduate education, and, if the situation gets really bad, your school's dean.

I would not contact HR, though, as it is not their issue. This is an academic/instructional issue involving the mistreatment of a student by an instructor.

  • 4
    The student should check the allowed regulations carefully. While HIPAA and FERPA do not allow communication between doctor and instructor (unless privacy is waived by the student), policy dictates what the student can expect. For example, at my school, missing an exam or class for anything that isn't a university-sanctioned activity is entirely up to instructors' discretions. They can simply say "no" and give a zero, if they choose. – aeismail May 25 '18 at 1:20
  • 1
    Again, if he insists, he is treating you unfairly. - I'm not so sure. I've been in situations (particularly when the student is asking to take an exam weeks later) where I've wanted more information than a note saying a student had a medical appointment or was excused from school just for the day of the exam. I haven't done this, and I wouldn't want medical details, just to know that the student has a valid medical excuse for the whole situation, but have thought about it. (Just like aeismail, what to do is left up to the discretion of the instructor at my university.) – Kimball May 25 '18 at 13:04
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    @Kimball Yep, but I still believe that insisting to talk to a healthcare provider is off-limits. That is why doctor's notes exist in the first place. – xuq01 May 25 '18 at 15:23
3

As with any privacy matter, the one ultimately making a decision is you. A professor is allowed to ask for you to waive your rights to privacy so your medical discussion can be discussed with the doctor, but you have the choice to agree or say no.

So, a professor can most definitely ask if it would ease communication with the doctor and evaluation of a re-take exam. Nothing wrong with that request and the comments I've read so far on this question are a little on the strong side. No need to jump on the professor's case just for asking.

Where the line is drawn here is if your refusal to waive your right to privacy has a direct impact on your exam or result from it. In that case, taking this to HR or the uni board would be a good thing, because that would not be proper.

  • 4
    I have had to deal with fake doctor’s notes : sent the suspect note to the doc who said it was fake ... date changed etc And, the doc was kind, he could have prosecuted the student as that is a serious act... – Solar Mike May 24 '18 at 14:19
  • 4
    I disagree. Protecting students' privacy is important. Beyond checking the genuineness of the certificate, the professor has no business talking to the doctor. – Martin Bonner May 24 '18 at 16:44
  • To HR? How is HR involved in this? – Azor Ahai May 24 '18 at 21:40
  • 2
    @AzorAhai: The first step should be to appeal this decision and behavior to the chair of the department. Going to the board will take much longer. The HR department—or its equivalent in the administration (the provost's office in the US) could get involved if there is a faculty conduct issue. – aeismail May 25 '18 at 1:32
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    Asking someone to forfeit their privacy when you are in a position of power over them is deplorable and deeply unethical - should be a first time firing offense for any university official. The power imbalance between student and professor is big enough that any question to that effect carries an "or else" like "or else you'll get a zero on the exam". No, just no. – Magisch May 28 '18 at 11:55
3

One thing the professor can do, without violating medical privacy laws, is to simply contact the medical practice to ask if they can speak to Doctor Such-And-Such (in other words, verify that the doctor is, actually, doctor), and then to ask Doctor Such-And-Such to verify that he/she was indeed the author of the note. After all, the doctor sent the note. So you could say to the doctor "While I do not wish you to talk to my doctor about my medical condition, feel free to talk to my doctor to verify that the note is valid".

0

You ask about what's allowed, which may not be the same as what's right or ethical. In the absence of some course and/or university policy (and/or state law) stating otherwise, the decision of whether or not to allow a student to retake a missed exam is entirely at the professor's discretion.

As a first step, you should check to see whether any such policy exists at your school or for your course. If one does, then you're in luck. Refer your professor to it. If they still don't come around, involve an advisor, department head, or similar third-party to resolve the duspute.

If there is no such policy, you'll need to shift your perspective a bit.

The default scenario at this point is that you've failed the midterm. That's the outcome you have if the professor simply sits there and does nothing.

So while it's true that the professor cannot legally require or otherwise compel you to waive doctor-patient confidentiality, it may also be true (barring any university policies in your favor) that you cannot require or compel the professor to let you retake the midterm. They can deny your request for any reason, or for none at all.

You've got a stalemate; the professor is almost certainly allowed to ask you to waive doctor-patient confidentiality, and you're certainly allowed to refuse. In which case the stalemate continues, and you're stuck with the default outcome of a failed midterm.

In essence, nobody is requiring anything. You missed an exam, and you want to be allowed to retake it. You may have a completely valid and reasonable excuse for missing the exam, but in the absence of any policy to the contrary whether or not you get to an exam is at the professor's sole discretion. You're asking the professor for a favor, and they're asking one back.

None of which means that the professor has been reasonable or fair or ethical if they've not accepted a genuine medical excuse at face value, or that the incident couldn't have negative repercussions for the professor if the details get out, or that you wouldn't find support if you took the matter higher up in the university food-chain.

But your question is about what the professor can do. And they can ask you to let them speak to your doctor, yes. They can't force you to, but they can sit on their hands and do nothing if you refuse. They shouldn't do that sort of thing, but without a university policy stating otherwise they almost certainly can.

-1

The answer will greatly depends on your region.

Some things to consider would be to look at your local laws and your University's guidelines, too.

A note from and MD rather than an NP may be a valid request depending on your University's guidelines. Many universities require a note specifically from an MD for such occasions.

As for his asking to talk to your doctor, it would be useful to know what he is trying to achieve that a note couldn't do. Ask him why exactly he needs to speak to your doctor.

If he doubts that you have/had an illness then it should be completely unnecessary to ask for more than a note from an MD. If that's all he wants to do and doesn't back down after getting a note, look at your local laws and University's guidelines and contact HR if he oversteps any of those.

But you didn't mention what your illness was, perhaps he may not be doubting that you have the illness but rather wants to assess whether or not it was a good reason to defer an exam. If his questions are about the illness in general and why it would be a valid reason to miss an exam, suggest consulting any doctor about it.

Lastly, and perhaps the least popular suggestion, ask yourself exactly what you'll lose by letting your professor know about your illness. Perhaps the easiest solution, albeit least favorable, is to just let him speak to your doctor about it. His demands may be out of line, but if you were honest about your illness there's no real harm to you for allowing him to speak to your doctor about it.

  • 16
    Well, if the OP was recovering from an abortion, or from syphilis, then they might not want the Prof knowing. It's also important that people get sniffy about their medical privacy when they have had a cold - precisely in order to protect those whose condition was more embarressing. – Martin Bonner May 24 '18 at 16:41
  • I understand the humiliation aspect of things, hence why I mentioned the possibility of just letting the prof know as my last point. Regarding syphilis or an abortion as examples you pointed out, letting the prof know about your condition won't GET you syphilis or force you into a situation where you get an abortion - that's what I meant by no real harm. If it boils down to failing a class or allowing your professor to talk to your doctor, it's something that should be considered. – Alexandre Aubrey May 25 '18 at 17:30
  • 4
    You’re assuming that a violation of privacy is not “real harm”. The existence of privacy laws suggests otherwise. – JeffE May 27 '18 at 15:23
  • since, at the time of writing my answer, the OP's location was not specified, there was a possibility in which the professor's requirements were legal and allowed by the University. In that situation, it is a very reasonable suggestion to ask OP to assess exactly how much harm they receive by obliging to those demands. I clearly mentioned that I understood the humiliation aspect of privacy laws, and by real harm I clearly meant physical harm; allowing your professor to know about your condition won't make your condition worse than it already is. – Alexandre Aubrey May 28 '18 at 13:28
-4

Since this sounds like a disability, talk to your college/university's disability office. Get an accommodation letter that allows you to make up classes and exams. In every college I have attended, this letter is sufficient for establishing that you have a disability and the professor would be violating university policies if he were to require more information on the medical condition.

  • 9
    This does not sound like a disability. – Scott Seidman May 25 '18 at 9:59

protected by Alexandros May 25 '18 at 18:15

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