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Soaring costs for copying patient records ‘should be a national scandal’

clive elliott crop 2

When practices first became aware of the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) there was a wave of anxiety amongst practice managers. I tried to explain to those managers who were worried that GDPR is not really aimed at us, as we should be operating good practice already.

Under GDPR, we are not allowed to charge a fee for patient information and, in principle, I support that idea. However, the legislation does not allow us to recover our costs either. Where a solicitor used to pay £50, they now get to keep that money while the whole cost centre has shifted to an already struggling NHS.

In a practice of our size, with 6,000 patients, we have in the past received approximately £10,000 per year in fees from solicitors and firms who collate records on their behalf under the Data Protection Act – a large contribution towards staff costs.

Only last week, a set of medical records for a long-term chronically ill patient took one person an entire day to find, copy, collate, redact, print and post – meaning costs of nearly £100 (taking into account we pay at least the Living Wages Foundation wage rate, plus on-costs including paper and copying charges). This is an extreme example but, on average, I estimate it costs us £60 per subject access request. It just isn’t sustainable if we can no longer charge fees for this work.

The law could easily be changed if there is the political will to do so

From my basic research, I estimate there are 8,550 GP practices in England and Wales with an average list size of 7,800. If £10,000 of income is the norm for a practice of our size, then it is not difficult to extrapolate the figures and see that this is now costing the NHS in England and Wales over £85 million.

That’s also £85 million in higher profits for solicitors and this just at primary care level. God alone knows what it is now costing hospitals and other NHS bodies but it must be into the hundreds of millions. Why this isn’t a national scandal fails me.

When I became business partner, I introduced a voluntary £7.50 charge for solicitors and others to have their client’s sensitive information sent by tracked delivery. Every solicitors firm and every company that collates information for solicitors refused to pay. Every other organisation agreed. It was then that it dawned on me that solicitors don’t work for free, but they expect the NHS to.

As highlighted by Pulse’s story about the call for GPs to write to their MP about excessive third-party patient data requests, I am sure I am not alone in seeing the change that has taken place since 25 May. Solicitors are much more aggressive with their demands and collation companies act with a sense of entitlement which beggars belief. By way of example, last week I proposed to a firm of solicitors that I would give the requested medical records to our patient as the solicitors refused to pay for secure postage (despite not now even having to pay for the records). The partner in the firm threatened to ‘come down there and sort [me] out’. ‘Well, if you’re down here anyway,’ I said, ‘you may as well collect the notes yourself.’

He swore at me. While I am past being intimidated by bullies, this is increasingly what practices are having to deal with.

The law could easily be changed to allow practices to cover their costs if there is the political will to do so. If there isn’t, then the Government is effectively removing £85 million from already tight primary care budgets and giving it to solicitors.

Personally, I would like to see some understanding between professionals. Solicitors can afford to pay a reasonable charge. They don’t work for free so why should the NHS?

The BMA and LMCs need to lobby the new Health Secretary hard about this. CCGs should also be up in arms because it hands precious NHS resources to solicitor’s firms.

Patients should be furious because, in the end, they are the ones that will suffer.

At the moment, this is not a national scandal. But it should be!

Clive Elliott is business partner at Court Street Medical Practice in Telford