GP practices should not be turned into a ‘place of fear’ for migrant patients who are frightened their personal data could be shared with the authorities, MPs were told today.
The House of Commons Health Committee is scrutinising a data sharing agreement between the Department of Health and Social Care, NHS Digital and the Home Office.
Last year Pulse reported that the Home Office could trace offenders and vulnerable people from personal patient data shared by the NHS.
The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was renewed in December and covers the kind of data such as patients’ addresses, which can be disclosed to help with crime investigation, protecting vulnerable people or tracing immigration ‘offenders’ such as escapees from detention centres or overstayers.
Dr Lucinda Hiam, a GP with the Doctors of the World charity which runs clinics for immigrants told the committee today (Tues Jan 16): ‘We might see people in exploitative conditions where the GP is only place they can go .. Turning the GP into a place where they also fear is unacceptable.’
She explained that some pregnant migrants are so scared their addresses might be handed over to the immigration authorities they delay getting health care from a GP.
Recently a woman turned up to the clinic in labour, rather than get help earlier, because of her anxiety that her details could be handed over, said Dr Hiam.
Dr Hiam told the committee that ‘pregnant women are frightened to go to the GP. Trying to assuage their fears isn’t working.’
She said instead ‘pregnant women will go to A&E where they don’t have to give their details’.
Dr Hiam added: ‘Women won’t go to their GP anymore, even those experiencing domestic violence.’
Marissa Begonia, from the Voice of Domestic Workers, warned that fear of being tracked down by the Home Office could push patients with conditions such as pneumonia ‘underground.’
Yusuf Azad, the director of the National AIDS Trust, said patient trust in doctors keeping their data confidential based on ethical and not political criteria was ‘very precious’.
Professor John Newton, Public Health England’s director of health information, said doctors were ‘put in a very difficult position’ if they knew NHS Digital could pass data despite GMC guidance there are no ‘ethical’ reasons to pass on information purely for investigations into immigration offences.
The committee heard that just 3% of traces came up with fresh information.
Hugh Ind, the Home Office’s director general of immigration enforcement, told the committee: ‘I’m very well aware of the value of updated or corroborated evidence.’
It comes as the GMC has written to the committee to express its concern about the MoU.
Chief executive Charley Massey said: ‘We have expressed our concerns to NHS Digital and the Department of Health about the impact this memorandum could have on patients’ trust in doctors and have yet to be reassured that information will only be disclosed in cases where there is a clear public interest.
‘Trust is essential to the doctor-patient relationship, and confidentiality is central to that trust.
‘We recognise that confidentiality is not absolute and there are circumstances where it is in the public interest to disclose information. However, doctors and third sector organisations are concerned they may fall foul of our guidance and patients may fail to register with a GP out of fear of immigration action being taken against them. It is a matter of public interest if patients avoid seeking medical care due to such fears.’