Does new Bill remove a doctor's control over patient data?

Dr Vivienne Nathanson, head of science and ethics at the British Medical Association, says the Government’s Health and Social Care Bill will, potentially, remove the control doctors and patients have over their confidential...

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Dr Vivienne Nathanson, head of science and ethics at the British Medical Association, says the Government’s Health and Social Care Bill will, potentially, remove the control doctors and patients have over their confidential data.

“The government has decided to place its desire for access to information over the need to respect patient confidentiality.

“The Health Bill proposes that a number of bodies - including the Secretary of State for Health, the newly formed 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. 

“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 is 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. All bodies accessing health records should be bound by a strict and clear code of conduct.”

The main areas of the Health and Social Care Bill which could dilute patient confidentiality are in Part 9, Clause 234.

The BMA says that access to health records is currently subject to well established legal and ethical safeguards. In some circumstances the release of identifiable information can be sanctioned under existing legislation by the Ethics and Confidentiality Committee which is  governed by the National Information Governance Board - which the government plans to abolish. 

A spokesman for the Department of Health said the government's modernisation plans would allow patients to see where unacceptable NHS services were being provided and should drive up the quality of care.

"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.

"We are happy to work with the BMA to understand their concerns." 



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