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Doctors and MPs slam data sharing rules

RCGP says current agreement 'treats GP patient data like the Yellow Pages'

Mark Gould

Monday, 16 April 2018

The influential House of Commons Health and Social Care Select Committee has warned that healthcare data should only be shared for law enforcement purposes in the event of "serious crime".

In a new report* which examines the Memorandum of Understanding on data-sharing between NHS Digital, the DHSC and the Home Office, it says sharing data for immigration tracing was "entirely inappropriate", and called into question the judgment of senior staff at NHS Digital - the arm of the NHS concerned with data collection, security and use.

Responding to the report, Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: "The Home Office is displaying a blatant disregard for the trusted and vital GP-patient relationship, and its casual approach to confidential patient data risks alienating highly vulnerable patients.

"It is treating GP patient data like the Yellow Pages, and we are calling on NHS Digital to take urgent measures to suspend the agreement that is allowing them to do so.

"The scale of the examples we're hearing about are becoming increasingly alarming – and if all are true, paint a terrible picture. We fully agree with the Health Select Committee that any harm being inadvertently caused must be quantified, explicitly discussed and rigorously evaluated before any data sharing agreement can continue.

"Data can be incredibly useful for medical research and planning purposes and healthcare professionals can inspire trust in our patients about how it is used. But we need to be reassured that the data we are guardians of – NHS patient records – will be used morally, safely and responsibly."

Committee chair and former GP Dr Sarah Wollaston said: "There is a clear ethical principle that address data held for the purposes of health and care should only be shared for law enforcement purposes in the case of serious crime.

"NHS Digital's decision to routinely share information with the Home Office with a lower threshold is entirely inappropriate. This behaviour calls into question NHS Digital’s ability to robustly act on behalf of patients in the event of other data sharing requests including from other government departments in the future."

BMA medical ethics committee chair Dr John Chisholm said: "The BMA has been vocal in its opposition to this data sharing arrangement between NHS Digital, the Home Office and the DHSC, which risks undermining the very foundation of the doctor-patient relationship."

NHS Digital chief executive Sarah Wilkinson said: "We will consider the Health Select Committee’s report carefully and will take into account any new evidence as it becomes available, but we have been through a rigorous process to assess the release of demographic data to the Home Office. This has established that there is a legal basis for the release and has assured us that it is in the public interest to share limited demographic data in very specific circumstances.'

A government spokesman said: "Non-clinical information is shared on occasion between health agencies and the Home Office to locate individuals suspected of committing immigration offences. This data is strictly controlled and only shared if there is a legal basis to do so."

The government said it would respond fully to the select committee report "in due course".

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