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At the heart of general practice since 1960

GPs left guessing over exception reporting rules

Clinical 'experts' including GPs will accompany NHS fraudbusters on visits to practices suspected of wrongdoing in order to protect patient confidentiality.

In a move intended to allay GPs' fears over a major expansion of its powers, the NHS Counter Fraud and Security Management Service said the experts would ensure inspectors did not break confidentiality.

A spokesman said protecting the privacy of records was its 'highest priority'.

GPs have raised strong objections to Government plans to allow the counter fraud service to make unannounced visits and take clinical data without getting patient consent or a police warrant.

Practices said they feared either breaching patient confidentiality if they released identifiable information, or facing jail if they did not.

The counter fraud service said inspectors would undergo strict propriety checks and could be prosecuted for disclosing information obtained from practices.

The spokesman added the presence of clinical experts meant less information would be sought than if the police were involved.

GPs would also not have to hand over information immediately, even if they are the subject of an unannounced visit, but would have a week to supply it.

'There will be potentially fewer cases when the police might arrive during surgery hours,' the spokesman said.

But GPs rejected assurances they did not need to seek patient consent before disclosing notes because they would be covered by data protection laws.

Dr Lisa Silver, a GP in Nettlebed, Oxfordshire, said the comments were 'sloppy thinking'. She added: 'Just because it has something to do with money doesn't overrule the right for patients to have

their notes held privately. If a doctor is committing fraud that does not mean a patient is party to it.'

GPC chair Dr Hamish Meldrum said he wanted to see further 'checks and balances' to the fraud service powers. 'We would want to make sure those powers were used appropriately and there was redress in the same way as if you thought the police had abused its powers,' he said.

By Ian Cameron

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