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Doctors in England could find themselves in legal difficulty over using the NHS's electronic patient record system, MPs have been told.
Warnings were made at an inquiry session last week of the parliamentary health select committee about the legal and ethical ramifications of the government's plan to place patients' health data on an electronic “summary care record” without their explicit consent.
The Department of Health intends to put all patients' healthcare data on the summary care record, and patients will have the chance to opt out only within a specific period, under plans made by Connecting for Health, the agency that is delivering the national programme for information technology (IT) in the NHS.
Joyce Robins, co-director of Patient Concern, an independent watchdog group, gave evidence to the committee during its inquiry into the summary care record. She said, “I am very concerned with the position that doctors are going to be put in over this.”
She told the MPs how as a magistrate she saw many people appearing before her who had been away for months working or visiting family and been completely unaware of court summons sent to them to attend.
“I feel the same is going to happen here,” said Ms Robins. “People are going to have their data put up [on the summary care record] in two months' time without their consent, and how are doctors going to defend themselves legally?”
Ms Robins said that it was ethically “completely wrong” to put patients' records on an IT system without their explicit consent and that some people might take legal action against doctors once they learnt that their data had been put on the system without that consent.
Douwe Korff, professor of international law at London Metropolitan University and an expert on the European Convention of Human Rights and data protection, also gave evidence and expressed concerns.
Professor Korff agreed that the current proposals from Connecting for Health would breach European law and were unethical unless proper consent was sought.
“With consent, everything is almost possible, as long as it's free consent. If data from the summary care record are disclosed to third parties you will need consent—otherwise it will be illegal under European law unless there's very specific statutory regulation,” he said.
However, Jonathan Bamford, assistant information commissioner at the Information Commissioner's Office, the independent body responsible for promoting access to official information and protecting personal information, said, “There is a basis within UK law for doing what the Department of Health and Connecting for Health have decided to here.”
Also speaking at the session was Rob Hale, a consultant psychiatrist and psychotherapist and a member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists' working party on confidentiality.
“Patient consent is absolutely crucial, and it's got to be informed consent,” he said. “The professional, in conjunction with the patient, should have control over the flows of that information so that it isn't just passed to a system and then control lost.”
The inquiry continues.