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Warning over diabetes audit

By Daniel Cressey

GPs could be in breach of GMC rules on patient confidentiality if they participate in a nationwide NHS review of diabetes care, legal experts have warned.

Medical defence bodies have cautioned GPs against co-operating with Healthcare Commission requests to pass patient

information to a third party without consent.

The GMC is demanding the commission clarify the 'ethical and legal bases for the project', which aims to survey one in five GP practices. GP participation is voluntary but the review has strong Government backing.

All PCTs in England are selecting practices at random, which are asked to either contact all diabetes patients themselves with surveys – a major workload – or pass patients' names and addresses to the trust or its contractor.

But Dr Paul Colbrook, medicolegal adviser with the Medical Defence Union, said: 'They are being asked to pass confidential information to people outside the practice.' He said this may breach GMC rules requiring 'express consent' before disclosing identifiable data.

Dr Mark Dudley, senior medicolegal advisor at the Medical Protection Society, warned: 'The release of patient contact details and possibly clinical conditions to the PCT or its contractor without express consent may conflict with GMC guidance on confidentiality. MPS would advise practices to mail out the surveys themselves.'

A GMC spokesperson told Pulse: 'National research projects of this scale must be carried out as efficiently as possible while respecting patients' rights. We will be contacting the Healthcare Commission to discuss this issue.'

The Healthcare Commission insisted its survey was 'watertight'. In a statement it said: 'This area of law is exceptionally complex. The Commission has, however, taken extensive legal advice and is confident of the arrangements in place.'

The BMA advised practices to 'take the necessary steps to seek consent from patients where possible, and to inform them of the way identifiable information will be used'.

GMC confidentiality rules

• No 15. In any case where it is not practicable to anonymise data or anonymised data will not fulfil the requirements of the audit, express consent must be obtained before identifiable data is disclosed.

• No 16. Express consent is usually needed before the disclosure of identifiable information for purposes such as research, epidemiology, financial audit or administration.

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