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date: 10 December 2019

Summary and Keywords

Communication privacy management theory (CPM) argues that disclosure is the process by which we give or receive private information. Private information is what people reveal. Generally, CPM theory argues that individuals believe they own their private information and have the right to control said information. Management of private information is not necessary until others are involved. CPM does not limit an understanding of disclosure by framing it as only about the self. Instead, CPM theory points out that when management is needed, others are given co-ownership status, thereby expanding the notion of disclosing information; the theory uses the metaphor of privacy boundary to illustrate where private information is located and how the boundary expands to accommodate multiple owners of private information. Thus, individuals can disclose not only their own information but also information that belongs to others or is owned by collectives such as families.

Making decisions to disclose or protect private information often creates a tension in which individuals vacillate between sharing and concealing their private information. Within the purview of health issues, these decisions have a potential to increase or decrease risk. The choice of disclosing health matters to a friend, for example, can garner social support to cope with health problems. At the same time, the individual may have concerns that his or her friend might tell someone else about the health problem, thus causing more difficulties.

Understanding the tension between disclosing and protecting private health information by the owner is only one side of the coin. Because disclosure creates authorized co-owners, these co-owners (e.g., families, friends, and partners) often feel they have right to know about the owner’s health conditions. The privacy boundaries are used metaphorically to indicate where private information is located. Individuals have both personal privacy boundaries around health information that expands to include others referred to as “authorized co-owners.” Once given this status, withholding to protect some part of the private information can risk relationships and interfere with health needs. Within the scheme of health, disclosure risks and privacy predicaments are not experienced exclusively by the individual with an illness. Rather, these risks prevail for a number of individuals connected to a patient such as providers, the patient’s family, and supportive friends. Everyone involved has a dual role. For example, the clinician is both the co-owner of a patient’s private health information and holds information within his or her own privacy boundary, such as worrying whether he or she diagnosed the symptoms correctly. Thus, there are a number of circumstances that can lead to health risks where privacy management and decisions to reveal or conceal health information are concerned.

CPM theory has been applied in eleven countries and in numerous contexts where privacy management occurs, such as health, families, organizations, interpersonal relationships, and social media. This theory is unique in offering a comprehensive way to understand the relationship between the notion of disclosure and that of privacy. The landscape of health-related risks where privacy management plays a significant role is both large and complex. The situations of HIV/AIDS, cancer care, and managing patient and provider disclosure of private information help to elucidate the ways decisions of privacy potentially lead to health risks.

Keywords: privacy management, disclosure, health risk, confidentiality, HIV/AIDS, cancer, communication privacy management theory

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