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Expert warns of “staggering” consequences of new data-sharing proposals

4 March 2009

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The health consequences of the government’s new data-sharing proposals could be “staggering”, an expert from the British Medical Association (BMA) has warned.

In an editorial published on yesterday (3 March 2009), Dr Vivienne Nathanson, Director of Professional Activities at the BMA, expresses concerns about Clause 152 of the Coroners and Justice Bill, which she says appears to grant the government unprecedented powers to access people’s confidential medical records, and share them with third parties.

It means that laws that currently limit health data sharing could be set aside, including the protections of the Data Protection Act, says Dr Nathanson. Even the Venereal Diseases Regulations and the provisions of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act would not be immune to the potential for removal.

Health data is not privileged in the manner of legal information, but for many years it has been recognised as special, and as sensitive, she writes. Research shows that patients expect the health professional with whom they share information will hold it in confidence, and share it sparingly and on a need-to-know basis, usually those also involved in offering them care.

Yet Dr Nathanson believes that data in the current draft of the Bill suggests “blindness” to the special sensitivity of health data.

If the current draft legislation goes through with minimal changes, the effect could be to undermine doctor and patient confidence in the future control of data that neither is willing to record the most sensitive information, she warns.

She concludes: “This week, many of the leading medical organisations have written a joint letter to the Justice Secretary seeking the complete removal of health data from the provisions of the Bill. We are seeking a meeting, to provide him with the reasons behind our concerns and to emphasise why we can see no problems in the health sector to which this legislation is an acceptable solution.”