In business and contracts exist the principle of client confidentiality which, in essence, guides an institution or individual not to disclose information about a customer to a third party without the owner’s consent.
There are exceptional cases, however, where an institution or individual can divulge information to a third party. Such cases include where the said information or detail is sought in a court of law or in compliance with other laws.
By the nature of their businesses, hospitals, banks and other financial institutions have been known and expected to follow this principle to the letter. For example, even where one seeks to know their balance or obtain a cheque, many banks refuse to give the same to a third party unless there is a written note from the account holder instructing them to do so.
What has impressed me about the principle of client confidentiality in financial institutions is that even if the “third party” is one’s known spouse or partner, banks or insurance firms refuse to disclose the information if the client has not authorised or instructed them to do so.
However, in recent years, I have come across cases where some “undesirable elements” are undermining the principle of client confidentiality in financial institutions as well as some hospitals. This is a very unfortunate development, to say the least.
Cases of undermined client confidentiality abound. For example, a colleague told me about his experience at an out-patients department of a local public hospital where an officer loudly called those with sexually transmitted infections (STIs) to queue on the other side of the room and those receiving anti-retroviral therapy (ART) to queue on yet another side. What happened to client confidentiality?
Recently, standing on a queue at the enquiries counter of one bank, a front desk officer was heard loudly telling a client: “Ma salary anu sanalowetu! Kulibe ndalama! [Your salaries have not been processed.
There are no funds in your account].” The customer was visibly embarrassed and some of us wondered why the officer could not simply write down his account balance on the slip he had tendered.
The other day I presented a cheque for encashment in one of the foreign-owned banks in town. I went to the bank after the drawer had assured me that he had finalised a transfer of funds to his bank account. However, the bank teller told me there were no funds. The drawer asked me to check again in the afternoon, I obliged but the same teller insisted there were no funds.
I know banks do not encash cheques if there are no funds in an account or indeed if there is a technical error with the cheque presented.
However, I find it to be a breach of client confidentiality for a teller to be telling a third party: “There are no funds in this account.” If the teller politely ask the bearer of a cheque to link up with the drawer, surely they would know something is amiss.
Interestingly, in my case, after calling the drawer who later spoke to a supervisor, it was found that in fact there were funds after all.
But that was after the teller had told me, in her words: “Zimenezi ndiye zamasewera, panopa ndiye ndipanga charge for bouncing a cheque. Ndi K18 000 fine yake. [You’ve brought the cheque again. I think you are wasting my time, this time around I will fine the drawer K18 000].” Should a third party really be told that?
I do not want to believe this is a new organisational culture in the institutions per se. I believe it is just a case of a few bad apples in the basket. For the good of customers and the reputation of the institutions themselves, I would urge relevant professional groupings such as Medical Council of Malawi (MCM) and Bankers Association of Malawi (BAM), for example, to quickly organise refresher courses in customer service and client confidentiality for many front office staff.