MPs turn up heat on NHS digital over data sharing

Committee says sharing patient data with Home Office to control immigration violates ethical principles

The NHS appears “unable to protect patient data” after refusing to stop handing it to immigration authorities, says a damning report by MPs.

The Health and Social Care Committee has expressed “serious concerns about the ability of NHS Digital’s leadership”, in an escalation of the row over its data sharing practices.

It has published a new report on the issue, following the Government’s refusal to suspend a controversial memorandum of understanding (MoU) under which NHS Digital passes data to the Home Office.

Earlier this year, the committee heard at an evidence session that immigrants were too frightened to seek out health treatment because they feared information about them would be used by the Home Office to track them down.

Charities told the committee that immigrants were frightened to seek help, even when their life was at risk. In one case, a domestic worker died after contracting pneumonia.

Call for suspension

The evidence session prompted the committee to call for the agreement to be suspended pending a review of the implications for public health of sharing information with the Home Office.

But the Government rejected the request – prompting the committee to produce a second, stinging report raising “serious concerns about Government policy on the confidentiality of address data collected for the purposes of health and social care”.

Dr Sarah Wollaston (pictured), the committee’s Conservative chairwoman, said: “There is a clear ethical principle that address data held for the purposes of health and care should only be shared for law enforcement purposes in the case of serious crime.

Sarah Wollaston“NHS Digital’s decision to routinely share information with the Home Office with a lower threshold is entirely inappropriate. 

“This behaviour calls into question NHS Digital’s ability to robustly act on behalf of patients in the event of other data sharing requests including from other government departments in the future.”

NHS Digital was not “sufficiently robust in upholding the interests of patients, understanding the ethical principles underpinning confidentiality, or in maintaining the necessary degree of independence from Government”, the committee said.

Undermining relationship

The criticism was echoed by Dr John Chisholm, chair of the British Medical Association’s Medical Ethics Committee, who said the agreement was “undermining the very foundation of the doctor-patient relationship”.

“It is quite simply astounding that no professional medical ethicist was approached in the supposed 'meaningful' consultation ahead of the MoU's introduction,” he said.

In addition, Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs, condemned the “blatant disregard” for the GP-patient relationship, adding: “It is treating GP patient data like the Yellow Pages.”

Sarah Wilkinson, chief executive at NHS Digital, said it would consider the report, but added: “We have been through a rigorous process to assess the release of demographic data to the Home Office.

“This has established that there is a legal basis for the release and has assured us that it is in the public interest to share limited demographic data in very specific circumstances.”

Image by Chris Andrew, CC BY 3.0