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Central health database condemned
Privacy campaigners and medical groups have condemned a move that will see GPs hand over patients' confidential records to a central information bank.
The British Medical Association and privacy group Big Brother Watch criticised the development in which family doctors will be compelled to share patients' details including drinking habits, NHS numbers, illnesses and reasons for treatment. There is no patient opt-out.
The files - which the NHS said will be anonymised - can be used to assess the nation's health, analyse demand for services, improve treatment and be used by organisations such as clinical commissioning groups. The details - referred to by the NHS as "patient identifiable components" - will include everything from diagnosis of cancer to mental illness, and doctors will also have to pass on dates of birth, postcodes and even the date patients died.
GPs will be required to send the information as part of Everyone Counts: Planning for Patients 2013/14 - a programme designed to extend the availability of patient data across the health service. The central database will be run by the NHS's Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC).
An NHS Commissioning Board report raises the prospect of the details being handed over to third parties if legally possible. It states: "The patient identifiable components will not be released outside the safe haven except as permitted by the Data Protection Act."
Nick Pickles, director of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch, said: "That we'll have no right to opt-out is plain wrong and the scheme should be abandoned before it turns into a privacy disaster on an unprecedented scale. Given the current proposals to amend the NHS constitution, the danger is that this is a pre-emptive step to allow our medical information to be shared on an unprecedented scale.
"The NHS has a terrible record in keeping information confidential and there is a huge risk that patients will start to withhold information from their GPs because they do not believe it will stay private. That could have catastrophic results for care. To claim a database that includes your NHS number, date of birth and postcode is anonymous is simply not true. The risks of re-identification on a mass scale are very real and do not seem to have been taken into account at all."
A spokeswoman for the Health and Social Care Information Centre, stressed the information, which is sent monthly, would not be kept on one server "taking up some huge, giant warehouse somewhere".
A British Medical Association spokesman said: "Sharing patient data to help inform commissioning decisions is an important process that can help to improve NHS services, but it must only be done with strict safeguards in place. Patients must be given the option to opt out of any scheme that seeks to transfer identifiable information about them from their records to another source.
"This opt-out should be widely advertised and explained in order that patients are reassured and understand the process being carried out. Patients must have trust in the confidential nature of the health service. Any requests for data should be based on sound evidence and for a specific purpose. We do believe that the current proposals from the NHS Commissioning Board are too broad and need further discussion with the medical profession and patients."