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NHS reforms threaten patient confidentiality

BMA warns reforms could expose patients’ privacy

Adrian O'Dowd

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Flaws in the government’s Health and Social Care Bill could threaten patient confidentiality, the BMA is warning.

The BMA has published a letter today sent to health minister Simon Burns on 21 February in which it outlines its worries about certain wording in the Bill that could threaten the confidentiality of patient records.

The Bill proposes that a number of bodies – including the Health Secretary, the newly formed NHS Commissioning Board and the NHS Information Centre – should be given the right to obtain and disclose confidential patient information for any number of unspecified purposes.

The main areas of the Bill impacting on patient confidentiality are in part 9, clause 234, said the BMA.

Dr Vivienne Nathanson, head of science and ethics at the BMA, said: “The government has decided to place its desire for access to information over the need to respect patient confidentiality.

“There is very little reference to rules on patient confidentiality that would ensure patients are asked before their information is shared or guarantee that the patient’s identity will not be revealed.

“Fears that their data may be shared with others may result in patients withholding important information; this may not only affect their own health but has implications for the wider health service.

“By failing to put in place proper safeguards, the government is potentially removing the control doctors and, most importantly, patients have over their confidential data. This conflicts with government promises that patients will be given greater control over their medical records.”

Dr Tony Calland, chair of the BMA’s medical ethics committee said the BMA was extremely concerned by the extent of the proposed powers, which would give unprecedented access to patient data.

“We are lobbying the government to ensure that the Bill is changed so that it enshrines the need for explicit patient consent for any disclosure of information, unless the information has been properly anonymised, pseudonymised or there is an overriding public interest,” said Dr Calland.

A Department of Health spokesman said the Department was happy to work with the BMA to understand its concerns, but denied it was undermining patient confidentiality.

“Our modernisation plans will make it easier for patients to see where unacceptable NHS services are being provided. Shining a light on poor performance will drive up the quality of care overall,” said the spokesman.

“However, there is no question of the Health and Social Care Bill undermining the confidentiality of patients and their clinicians. The Bill does not change any of the existing legal safeguards, which are set out in the Data Protection Act and the common law of confidence.”

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