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Seeing votes in patient notes

Phil sees the Labour party's 'cancer postcards' as a horrifying vision of how the impending Summary Care Record could be abused

There's a famous low-budget science fiction film from 1956 called Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. Aliens come down from outer space and occupy people's bodies while they're asleep. Before long there are only a few humans left. In the final scene the protagonist, a scientist, is staggering about on a freeway, drunk with lack of sleep, shouting at the uncaring cars: 'Listen to me! Please listen! If you don't, if you won't, if you fail to understand, then the same incredible terror that is menacing me WILL STRIKE AT YOU!'

If you substitute the Summary Care Record for aliens, I'm that bloke. Welcome to another heartfelt plea to please, for the love of God, reject the goddamn futile and damaging mess of centrally held medical records.

The Times, on 11 April, reported that the Labour party had sent 250,000 'cancer postcards' to various women. Addressed to the recipients by name, they warned that the Labour guarantee to see a cancer specialist within two weeks would be scrapped by the Tories. The cards also claimed that the 'right' to be treated within 18 weeks would be abolished by that same political party. They included a message from a breast cancer 'survivor' praising her treatment under Labour.

It is not possible to know exactly who these cards were sent to, because Labour won't say. The recipients may have been selected randomly. But the Times article featured four women - all of whom had cancer or were being investigated for it - and they were the only women they knew who had received one.

We don't know where the Labour party got these names and addresses. Not from the care record, because it isn't that developed yet. But who would think the care record would not be abused when we can't control who has access?

I myself investigate and treat women suffering from breast cancer, among other types of illness, but I wasn't aware I was doing it under a particular political banner.

In the Times article, 40-year-old Janet Arslan, a graphic designer, said: 'When I received the breast cancer card I thought it was from the hospital. I did not think Labour would be that crass to deliberately target a terminal cancer patient like me.'

The principle of medical confidentiality is imbued in us doctors from day one of medical school. Silence about the terrors of illness is a fundamental part of the contract. We would no more think about filing our patients into an electoral demographic than we would consider selling their names to a snake-oil merchant. Yet here we have some sleazy shit of a spin-doctor thinking there might be votes in this breast cancer business, and even worse, acting on that.

This is appalling. How dare they. How dare any political party use random human tragedy as a stepping-stone?

If women were targeted on the basis of cancer treatment or investigations then that would mean someone in the Labour party had gained access to confidential medical records and used them for political ends. If that were true it would be nauseating, but there's no guarantee that any other political party, unused as they are to basic morality, would act any differently.

As the custodians of our patients' medical records, we have to do all we can to protect confidentiality. And that includes resisting any attempt to form a national database that can be used by some fool who feels his pond needs a new duck house.

Dr Phil Peverley is a GP in Sunderland