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Is it safe to send records abroad when patients move?

Under UK data protection law, a doctor may not send copies of medical records to another country that does not have equally secure data protection legislation. One might have assumed that most EU countries would have reasonably secure data protection procedures.

However, two GPs in Spain have recently been suspended from working in the Basque Health Service for two years without pay because they refused to include the medical records of their patients in a centralised database.

The reason they refused to co-operate was that the database contains the medical records of two million patients and is accessed routinely by 2,500 health care professionals, without informing either patients or doctors. A database operating in such a way in the UK would be in flagrant breach of the law.

We have no way of knowing for sure whether this information is accurate, but there is clearly some question about confidentiality and data protection in Spain.

You should therefore not send the data direct to the Spanish doctor unless you first explain this to the patient so that she may give legally valid consent to the transfer.

A safer policy would be to send the notes to the patient directly. It is then up to her whether she wishes to pass the data on to her new doctor.

With the holiday season, there are always sporadic requests for the transfer of data for the care of patients taken ill abroad. Since Spain is such a popular holiday destination for UK residents, this problem is bound to crop up at some stage.

If the patient's condition allows, and the

patient is competent to give consent, you should generally try to obtain the explicit consent of the patient.

However, if it is a matter of life and death or serious illness, it would be permissible to transfer the minimum data relevant to ensure appropriate medical care without consent if necessary.

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