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Government could automatically access GP patient data for benefits assessments

The Government could get automatic access to GP patient records, as part of a new digital system for welfare support application assessments.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said a new IT system is being developed, which will allow patients’ health data to be evaluated more quickly – by ‘automating routine requests’ for GP data – to determine the amount of welfare support they are entitled to.

Many GPs expressed concern over the new proposals, warning that they could undermine the doctor-patient relationship and deter people from seeking medical help.

The DWP said no information will be accessed without ‘explicit and informed consent’.

The DWP posted a job advert earlier last month, outlining their intention to request access to medical data to develop ‘a new digital service for administering DWP health-related benefits.’

It said: ‘We’re building a digital service to gather information from citizens and present this to DWP processing agents.’

The DWP said the current process is ‘largely clerical/paper-based, which is slow and expensive’ and it would be easier to have ‘automated routine requests and digitise ad-hoc requests’.

Addressing why this is being done, it said: ‘To improve the accuracy and efficiency of administering applications to DWP health-related benefits.

‘Our Discovery research proved we can improve the efficiency and accuracy of this process by automating routine requests for medical information (i.e. GP details, conditions diagnosed, hospital stays etc) and providing a digital route for ad-hoc requests,’ it continued.

But Tower Hamlets LMC chair Dr Jackie Applebee said: ‘I can’t imagine any GPs consenting to allow the DWP access to our records. It would be a breach of trust and confidentiality. We’re the patient advocates.’

She continued: ‘It comes down to a breach of trust and I think that is fundamental to the doctor-patient relationship. Especially when you think about how difficult it is for patients to access benefits and how lots of patients are clearly are not fit for work. They go to a welfare medical and found fit to work and huge numbers of them get that overturned on appeal.’

This comes after Pulse reported that the Home Office is in talks with NHS Digital about a new data-sharing agreement to allow it to access GP patient data.

The data-sharing agreement, known as the memorandum of understanding (MoU), was first introduced in January 2017, but put on pause for review back in May, before NHS Digital withdrew completely at the beginning on this month.

A new deal could be on the horizon however, with the two parties currently in talks over a ‘new MoU’ to enable requests for ‘non-medical information about those facing deportation action’.

RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard said: ‘GP patient data is vital to ensure our patients receive the best possible care when they access healthcare. We do not hold our patients’ confidential data to help other organisations check their eligibility for welfare, their immigration status, or any other function not related to their health and wellbeing.’

‘We are doctors, whose first interest is the care of our patient: we are not border guards, and we are not benefits assessors,’ she added.

However, head of primary care and public health at Imperial College London Professor Azeem Majeed, a GP in south London, said he believes it could be advantageous.

He said: ‘Doctors are frequently asked to provide letters and report to the DWP and my experience is that this has not put people off seeking medical care. If the new system reduces the workload for doctors and provides more timely reports to the DWP, then it will be beneficial for both doctors and patients.’

‘Patients have the right to determine who has access to their medical records. If a patient gives consent for DWP to access their medical records, then I would accept this as being the patient’s choice,’ Professor Majeed continued. 

A DWP spokesperson said: ‘No information will be accessed without explicit and informed consent, and to suggest otherwise would be misleading.

‘Some patients are happy to share information which is why we are able to use their information to help them claim health related benefits more quickly. Anything to make this an easier and quicker experience for claimants would help them, which is why we are simply exploring potential options to improve the current system.’