LONDON – General Practitioners in Great Britain will soon be compelled to divulge confidential patient information for the purpose of a national information bank. Privacy advocates say this will be the largest data grab in the history of England’s National Health Service (NHS).
Doctors will be forced to pass on patients’ drinking habits, waist sizes and illnesses. Other confidential information that will be shared with third parties includes weight, cholesterol levels, body mass index, pulse rate, family health history, alcohol consumption and smoking status.
Medical diagnosis of everything from heart disease to mental illness would be included. Family doctors will have no choice but to pass on dates of birth, postcodes and NHS numbers.
Public officials have sought to relieve fears by insisting that personal information will be made anonymous and deleted after analysis. But Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering at Cambridge University, said: “Under these proposals, medical confidentiality is, in effect, dead and there is currently nobody standing in the way.”
Nick Pickles, head of the privacy group Big Brother Watch, said NHS managers would now be in charge of citizens’ most confidential information. He added: “It is unbelievable how little the public is being told about what is going on, while GPs are being strong-armed into handing over details about their patients and to not make a fuss. Not only have the public not been told what is going on, none of us has been asked to give our permission for this to happen.”
Everyone Counts, a program to extend the accessibility of patient data throughout the NHS, is the reason given for requiring the information. Doctors will be mandated to send monthly updates on their patients to a central database run by the NHS’s Health and Social Care Information Centre.
In a briefing for physicians, health officials admitted that “patient identifiable components” will be demanded, including date of birth and post codes. They were quick to promise that the information center would be “safe haven” for personal data, which will be deleted soon after it is received.
Though the stated purpose for the information is “analyze demand for services and improve treatment” an outline of the plan raises the prospect of clinical data being sold to third parties. The NHS statement, “HSCIC … will store the data and link it only where approved and necessary, ensuring that patient confidentiality is protected” had done little to satisfy advocates for personal privacy.
General Practitioner leaders say the latest proposals are too broad. “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,” said a spokesman.
Phil Booth of the campaign group NO2ID said an unparalleled volume of data would be “sucked up”. “People have to trust in the notion of medical confidentiality. They expect to be able to talk in confidence to their GP,” he said. “They don’t expect their private conversations to be uploaded on to a national database where they will be made available for any number of purposes for the benefit of persons unknown.”
With full-blown national health care less than one year away in the United States, one can only imagine that such plans are already in the formation stage on this side of the pond.