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I have received information from the police about offences committed by several teenage patients. All information coming into our practice is scanned into the medical records and then shredded, but I am not at all sure that details of police cautions and offences should be treated in this way. I appreciate there is sometimes a need to 'share information' but I am concerned about the possible legal implications of storing this information in the records.

This information should probably not have been shared with you without the explicit and valid legal consent of the young person concerned, unless it was essential to protect the patient, or some other person, from harm.

Occasionally it may be essential to share the minimum data that will serve a legal purpose to draw attention to a serious danger to the patient or to family members or to practice staff.

This data may be shared without consent if necessary. However, the reason for the data sharing in such circumstances should be spelt out very clearly in order to fulfil the purpose of providing an adequate warning.

If the young person had been informed as to what data would be shared, with whom and for what purpose, and had consented on that basis, then it would be permissible.

If this is not the case then there has almost certainly been a breach of data protection, human rights legislation and/or the common law duty of confidentiality. It is not appropriate to include data about offences in the medical records, unless it is specifically required to inform the medical care of that patient or is essential to protect another person.

If the data is to be retained it should generally be filed separately and then destroyed as soon as it has served the valid legal purpose for which it was shared in the first place.

Should you inadvertently disclose police information that you have filed in the records, you would potentially be in breach of the Data Protection Act, human rights legislation and/or the common law duty of confidentiality.

The LMC has concerns about some of the data sharing that occurs in relation to the welfare of children and young persons. There must always be a good reason for sharing data

without valid legal consent. When GPs are asked to share medical data with social services, the police or other professionals working with patients, the doctor has a very strict professional and legal duty of confidentiality.

He or she may only share data with someone who shares the same duty of confidentiality. It is very unlikely that routine and unnecessary data sharing will protect children or young people. It is more likely to contribute to data overload. Intelligent data sharing for a specific purpose, with a specific person who has a legal duty to act on that information, and who will act promptly and effectively on that information, is much more likely to protect vulnerable children.

Doctors must share data as and when it is important to do so. For example, the GMC has advised that no part of the Children Act 'requires' the disclosure of data without consent.

This does not mean that doctors should never share data in order to protect children, but rather that they should share data only when absolutely necessary.

A doctor may be required to defend any inappropriate disclosure in the courts, or in an NHS or GMC disciplinary procedure. If the decision is finely balanced the doctor should always err in favour of protecting a child or young person, rather than protecting the data.

Dr Christine Dewbury, Wessex LMCs

Neither Pulse nor Wessex LMCs can accept any legal liability in respect of the answers given. Readers should seek independent advice before acting on the information concerned.

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