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NHS Information Revolution will require extra safeguards

Doctors should play a role in helping patients protect their own data

Jo Carlowe

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Safeguards are needed to protect patient confidentiality if government plans to revolutionise the way the NHS uses data goes ahead.

In its “Information Revolution” consultation, the government has outlined plans to give patients in England more access to NHS data and more control over their records.

But today, in its response, although agreeing in principle that the NHS should be more intelligent in its use of data, the British Medical Association said the way healthcare information is collected, controlled and used will be difficult to achieve within the financial constraints on the NHS and that safeguards will be required to protect confidentiality.

The Association pointed out that many NHS organisations currently do not have the systems in place to realise the government’s vision, and that IT is often one of the first areas to be downscaled during times of financial difficulty. It argues that the proposals to allow patients to share their records online require safeguards to protect them against disclosing more information than they intend – either inadvertently or as a result of coercion. And it calls for more consideration to be given to the potential of the proposals to increase health inequalities, pointing out that a technology-driven policy will not deliver benefits to groups that do not have access to technology.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, a GP and member of the BMA’s Working Party on IT, said: “Improving NHS IT while the NHS is under huge financial pressure will be extremely challenging. Delivering the information revolution cost-effectively and equitably will depend on building on the systems that are currently in place and working well, and on involving clinicians.

“While the principle of patients controlling aspects of their records is a good one, there must be safeguards to reduce the risks involved in sharing such sensitive data. Even if a patient validly decides to share part of their records, for example via an online support forum, they will effectively lose control once posting it.

“The role of clinicians in helping patients protect their own data, and interpreting and explaining information will be vital.”

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