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GP data controversy stalks the front pages



The media storm surrounding the introduction of NHS England's scheme shows no sign of abating. Today's Daily Telegraph newspaper reports that the NHS's own risk analysis has warned that the "controversial database could be vulnerable to hackers or could be used to identify patients maliciously".

The Daily Mail, meanwhile, gave prominence to a survey showing how the majority of GPs do now know how information from will be used.

Critical media coverage of has been extensive since last month the NHS began a programme of mailshots to patients offering them the opportunity to opt out of having data from their records extracted for re-use. A prominent critic is Phil Booth, who led the successful No2ID campaign against Labour's identity card programme and now runs the Medconfidential website.

In theory all 26 million households in England are being notified about the scheme, however opponents say that many fail to understand the forms, or miss them entirely.

The Telegraph's report says there has been a growing backlash against the scheme with family doctors and privacy campaigners raising fears that data could be misused. While data passed on to third parties will be anonymised or pseudonymised NHS England's risk assessment says that patients could be "re-identified" by matching anonymous data is combined with other information. The risk assessment notes that tis would be illegal and would be subject to sanction by the Information Commissioner's Office.

The report also warns the risk that patients may lose trust in the confidential nature of the health service.
“This risk is two-fold; firstly, patients will not receive optimal healthcare if they withhold information from the clinicians that are treating them; and secondly, that this loss of trust degrades the quality of data."

Tim Kelsey, national director for patients and information at NHS England, said: "The privacy impact asssessment is a live document, which will be constantly updated as our drive for better information continues, and as we continue our conversations with the public about how the NHS uses data. On legal issues such as risks of hacking and data misuse by individuals, the document sets out clearly the high-level technical and contractual safeguards against them. On ethical issues like patient trust in the system, the document shows we have pledged to ensure public awareness of the scheme, its benefits, its risks, and patients' rights to register objection."

Last week, the national press gave prominence to concerns by the Royal College of GPs, which says it supports the scheme in principle but says it is "very worried" that patients have not been properly informed and that there was a "crisis of public confidence" over the scheme.


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