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Privacy fears over NHS plans to share GP medical records with third parties

Privacy fears over NHS plans to share GP medical records with third parties

Privacy fears have been raised over controversial plans to share NHS medical records from every GP patient in England with third parties.

According to NHS Digital, the medical histories of more than 55 million patients will be made available on a database to “support the planning and commissioning of health and care services, the development of health and care policy, public health monitoring and interventions (including COVID-19) and enable many different areas of research.”

People can opt out of the scheme before 23 June by providing an online form to their GPs.

An NHS Digital spokesperson defended the plans, saying the data could not be used “solely for commercial purposes” and researchers wanting access would need approval from the Independent Group Advising on the Release of Data (IGARD) and a GP Professional Advisory Group (PAG).

WHY IT MATTERS

The GP records being shared include sensitive data such as mental and sexual health, criminal records, smoking and drinking habits.

Digital rights campaign group Foxglove has written to health secretary Matt Hancock questioning the legality of the plans.

Campaigners have also raised concerns the scheme has not been sufficiently publicised.

The Royal College of GPs (RCGP) has written to NHS Digital “urging them to undertake greater communications with the public about this new collection and their options for opting out.”

THE LARGER CONTEXT

The NHS tried to put GP records in a central database in 2013 under the Care.data programme, but it was abandoned in 2016 after confidentiality complaints.        

ON THE RECORD

RCGP chair, Professor Martin Marshall, said: “The college supports the principle of improved sharing of data for important healthcare planning and research, but it is critical that this is transparent and that patients have confidence and trust in how the NHS and other bodies might use their information. Along with the BMA, we have engaged with the planning of this new data collection – which is a legal requirement of GP practices – for several years and are continuing to lobby NHS Digital to ensure appropriate safeguards are in place for how the data collected is used.”

Phil Booth, coordinator of privacy organisation, medConfidential said: “For the Government to rush out a data grab like this, with only a few weeks’ notice for patients and for GPs, is not only corrosive of trust – it’s deeply irresponsible. GPs are the busiest they’ve ever been and dumping this on them without time to prepare and the resources to handle patients’ opt-outs is the very worst sort of digital disruption.”

An NHS Digital spokesperson said: “We have engaged with doctors, patients, data, privacy and ethics experts to design and build a better system for collecting this data. The data will only be used for health and care planning and research purposes, by organisations which can show they have an appropriate legal basis and a legitimate need to use it.”

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