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BMA urges ‘greater clarity’ surrounding NHS Digital merger into NHS England

BMA urges ‘greater clarity’ surrounding NHS Digital merger into NHS England

The BMA has raised concerns around data security in light of the impending merger of NHS Digital into NHS England.

Separation between NHS Digital and other Government or arms-length bodies is ‘essential’ to ensure data is ‘not shared inappropriately’, the doctors’ union told Pulse.

It comes as the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) announced in November 2021 that NHS Digital, Health Education England and NHSX would merge into NHS England and Improvement.

The DHSC said the move is to ‘improve co-operation between the key digital bodies of the NHS’.

However, the Government does not currently have the power to enable formal legal mergers of the DHSC’s arm’s length bodies.

The power is currently being considered as part of the controversial Health and Care Bill, meaning the NHS Digital merger is therefore subject to Parliament approving the measure, expected in summer 2022.

By the same means, the Government intends for Health Education England to be merged into NHS England.

But the BMA has said NHS Digital’s ‘existing system of independent assurance and oversight’ is ‘essential’ to make sure data is distributed appropriately. 

It said it would ‘welcome greater clarity’ on what the merger will mean for ‘the NHS’ ability to guarantee the protection of patient information’.

BMA England GP committee executive officer and IT executive lead Dr Dean Eggitt told Pulse: ‘NHS Digital has an important role as the statutory safe haven for NHS patient data. Its separation from other Government or arms-length bodies and the existing system of independent assurance and oversight are essential to maintain public confidence that data are not shared inappropriately.

‘It is crucial that the health and care system retains an independent and expert function for data custodianship, to ensure that we do not lose the governance needed to safeguard sensitive data.

‘The BMA would welcome greater clarity on the implications that the merger will have on the NHS’ ability to guarantee the protection of patient information and seeks reassurance that it will not delay current and ongoing work programmes.’

NHS Digital currently publishes a range of GP data, including appointment and workforce figures, with recent data showing that GP numbers continue to decline.

It comes as the Government was last year forced to postpone plans for patient data to be passed from the GP record, via NHS Digital and to third parties.

The General Practice Data for Planning and Research (GPDPR) scheme was due to commence on 1 September 2021 after being pushed back amid campaigners’ warnings it would make sensitive patient data available to private firms.

However it is currently indefinitely on hold until a number of criteria are fulfilled, including patients being able to request their extracted data to be deleted.