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GPs should not be ‘penalised’ after appraisals website shutdown, warns DH

By Gareth Iacobucci

The Department of Health has written to PCTs stating doctors should not be ‘penalised' because they are unable to complete their appraisals, after the NHS Appraisal Toolkit was taken offline because of its vulnerability to hackers.

But it would not guarantee that any extra costs incurred by having to reschedule appraisals – such as locum cover during appraisal slots – would be reimbursed. PCTs should consider any funding implications ‘on a case by case basis', the DH said.

GPs are facing huge disruption and delays to their annual appraisals following the Government's decision to take the website last week.

The site, a key resource for thousands of GPs, has been withdrawn for three weeks after a routine security check revealed the system was not ‘sufficiently robust to withstand modern-day hacking'.

The move - made in agreement with the BMA and RCGP – has led to huge upheaval in the appraisal system at its busiest time of the year, and could delay the passage to revalidation for those taking part in pilots of the system.

GPC chair Dr Laurence Buckman called on the Government to ensure any extra costs caused by having to reschedule appraisals were met in full.

GPs warned the incident had severely dented the profession's trust in the process, with Dr Buckman urging the Government not to reinstate the website until ‘the full security of doctors' data can be assured'.

The Government insisted there was ‘no evidence of any breach of security', but said: ‘Given the importance of preserving confidentiality of staff and patient information, it is not acceptable to take any risks.'

A DH spokesman said: ‘As part of a routine security check it has been discovered certain aspects of the electronic NHS Appraisal toolkit, established nine years ago, are not sufficiently robust to withstand modern-day hacking. Ministers immediately instructed the website be taken offline until the supplier, SCHIN, can address these potential vulnerabilities.'

It acknowledged ‘some of the 27,000 active users of the service will have annual appraisals planned during the period the system will be suspended', but said it was vital ‘any security risk was dealt with as quickly as possible'.

Dr Charles West, a GP Appraiser in Shropshire and parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Democrats, condemned the decision to take the site offline.

‘Technical staff running the system say knowing the potential problem would have allowed them to monitor it for any incorrect use. But the health minister decided the service should be shut down without notice.'

Dr Sana Sheik, a GP in Waltham Abbey, said: ‘My appraisal is next month but preparation takes so long. This will definitely make me worry.'

RCGP chair Professor Steve Field said ensuring security of GP data was ‘the most important thing', but admitted: ‘It's going to be hugely disruptive, with GPs already feeling vulnerable enough about revalidation.'

The appraisals website was shut down due to hacking fears The appraisals website was shut down due to hacking fears Appraisal toolkit

The Government-funded site is designed as a single portal for GP appraisers and appraisees in the NHS.

It brings together advice, guidance, best practice, practical tools and access to a community of peers.

It contains tools for pre-appraisal documentation, including a questionnaire, and post-appraisal documentation including a personal development plan.

GPs who use the service are expected to validate content and keep it up to date prior to their annual appraisal.

The DH identified security concerns during quarterly information risk assessments, but insists there is ‘absolutely no evidence' of a security breach.