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BMA raises confidentiality concerns over ‘information revolution’

By Laura Passi

The BMA has warned ‘extremely permissive’ clauses in the health bill give ministers and public bodies unprecedented access to patient data and could fatally undermine trust in the patient-doctor relationship.

In a letter to Simon Burns, health minister, the BMA outlined concerns regarding the wording of the health bill that gives third parties, such as the health secretary, NHS Commissioning Board and other public bodies, access to confidential patient information for ‘unspecified health purposes’.

The letter calls for the health bill to be amended to enshrine the need for ‘explicit patient consent’, unless the data is anonymised or there is an overriding public interest.

The Government’s much-trumpeted ‘information revolution’ is intended to open up a plethora of data about hospital and GP services to enable patients to make an informed choice of where to go for treatment and to drive up standards of care.

But the BMA argues the provisions in the Health and Social Care Bill published earlier this year will undermine the trust between doctor and patient and will lead to patients withholding vital information.

The letter co-signed by head of BMA science and ethics Professor Vivienne Nathanson, and Dr Tony Calland, BMA Medical Ethics Committee chair, said: ‘It is clear that the Health and Social Care Bill gives very broad powers to a number of bodies including the Secretary of State, the Commissioning Board and the NHS Information Centre to obtain and disclose confidential patient information for any number of unspecified health purposes.’

‘Whilst we support appropriate sharing of patient information to bring increased benefits to patient care and the wider NHS, we are concerned that the Bill is extremely permissive and gives unprecedented access to patient data.’

Dr Calland explained: ‘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.’

BMA concerns have been promptly dismissed by the Department of Health. A spokesperson said: ‘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.’

BMA raises confidentiality concerns over ‘information revolution’ Letter from the BMA to Simon Burns MP Letter from BMA to Simon Burns MP

Download the letter here