The British Medical Association has renewed calls for the NHS to inform patients better about electronic care records.
The multibillion-pound rollout of patient records is gathering pace without the public’s understanding of what it means, the doctors’ body said. Five strategic health authorities are speeding up deployment: NHS North West, NHS North East, NHS Yorkshire and Humber, NHS London and NHS East of England.
The news comes as the BBC reported the NHS sent letters about the programme to patients in Cambridgeshire, containing confidential data on other patients. The information included which surgery other patients attend and their NHS number.
The BMA criticised the fact that opt-out forms are not included in NHS information packs sent to patients. In recent years, studies commissioned by the NHS found the vast majority of patients did not understand the implications of the care record, even after receiving the information.
Controversially, patients are automatically opted in to the system if they do not object within 12 weeks. It is then highly unlikely they will ever be able to have their record deleted.
The BMA, which supports the idea of having electronic care records, has repeatedly insisted patients needed to be “treated like adults” and asked to opt in, rather than having to opt out. But the opt-out model remains.
Dr Grant Ingrams, chair of the GP IT committee at the BMA, said last week that the rollout is taking place “too hastily”, with patients unaware “of what they are automatically being enrolled into”.
“We don’t believe the national roll-out needs to be or should be done in a hurry,” he added. “We would like to see it rolled out carefully area-by-area, in a properly supported and evaluated fashion.”
A spokesperson at the Department of Health told the Guardian newspaper today that the model of implied consent was useful to the NHS because it "helps to create the critical mass of records needed" to improve emergency and out-of-hours care. It is also the same model as that used in Scotland and Wales.
The BMA has in the past raised concerns over the security of the record and the format of the information, questioning how useful the records will be unless a specific format is agreed.
Meanwhile, the NHS faces a number of other battles in its attempts to drive the care record rollout. Two weeks ago, the Londonwide Local Medical Committees, which represents 6,000 GPs in the capital, began helping doctors to provide easy opt-out forms to patients.
The Department of Health is attempting by the end of this month to finalise renegotiation of the NHS IT contracts with BT and CSC, it was reported. The Conservative party said that tougher cancellation penalties are being introduced, effectively “tying the hands” of any future government by making it prohibitively expensive to end work.