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Whither Britons’ medical privacy? NHS patients privacy concerns to be officially ignored

Posted by James Hammerton @ 8:19 pm on 5 December, 2006.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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[Hat tip: UK Liberty]

Britain’s NHS is currently in the process of uploading patients’ medical records onto a central database that can be accessed by NHS staff. Patients concerned about potential violations of their privacy (after all, these are sensitive records) have been attempting to opt out of the system using a clause in the data protection act.

The government’s Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, has written to GPs asking them to forward on the details of those who are trying to opt out so that he can write to the patients explaining why he won’t let them opt out. According to the Sunday Telegraph:

More than 60 per cent of GPs fear that the £20 million NHS computerisation project, which has been beset by difficulties and is over budget, will be vulnerable to hackers, meaning that sensitive details on up to 50 million patients could be leaked.

The first records will be uploaded to a central NHS computer next spring from a small number of GP practices.

An eight-page letter outlining how patients’ opt-out requests are being rejected was placed on the website of NHS Connecting for Health – the Government agency responsible for the computer scheme – on Friday night.

Earlier in the day, Professor Sir Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer, had faced fierce criticism from the British Medical Association for demanding that GPs should “shop” patients who say no to the database.

Yesterday, it became clear that Sir Liam wanted the names and addresses of objectors in order to write to them to tell them that their request would not be granted because their reasons were not “genuine”. Many patients who wanted to opt out had cited a clause of the Data Protection Act, saying that uploading their information on to the summary care record – also known as the Spine – would lead to “substantial and unwarranted distress”.

The Department of Health says that only minimal patient information, such as allergies, acute and repeat prescriptions and adverse reactions will “initially” be uploaded on to the summary care record, which will not contain any diagnoses or medical problems.

A covering document on the Connecting for Health website says: “The Department’s response … explains it will not agree to their request to stop the process of adding their information to the new NHS database.

“The Department does not believe that processing their information in this way is a genuine reason linked to substantial and unwarranted distress.”

So here we have the British government demanding that patients’ medical records, containing sensitive information(*) are uploaded onto a database regardless of patients’ consent and GPs’ concerns about the security of the system concerned.

The above situation pertains to the NHS in England, I understand it a similar system is being implemented in Scotland (health is a devolved matter) and I’m currently investigating the present state of play there.

(*) Note that your repeat prescription history, mentioned in the above quotation about the Emergency Care Summary, could indicate what diseases you’ve had, or are currently suffering from. For example, a prescription for lithium might indicate you’re being treated for depression, other medicines may indicate a sexual problem.

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