The Home Office must be prevented from using GP patient data ‘like the yellow pages’, the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) has urged.
The comment follows renewed calls from the health and social care committee for NHS Digital to suspend an agreement – known as a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) – that allows it to share data with the Home Office.
RCGP chair Helen Stokes-Lampard said that the current approach followed by the Home Office risks putting off patients from visiting their GP practices.
‘[The Home Office] is treating GP patient data like the yellow pages, and we are calling on NHS Digital to take urgent measures to suspend the agreement that is allowing them to do so.’
A government spokesperson said that the data sharing is ‘strictly controlled and only shared if there is a legal basis to do so’.
A ‘rigorous process’
A report by the health and social care committee published yesterday (15 April) said NHS Digital should stop sharing patient data with the Home Office ‘until the current review of the NHS Code of Confidentiality is complete’.
Committee chair Sarah Wollaston said that NHS Digital’s decision to continue to share patients’ data with the Home Office is ‘entirely inappropriate’.
She added: ‘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.’
Conversely, NHS Digital said that it followed a ‘rigorous process’.
Responding to the report, chief executive at NHS Digital Sarah Wilkinson said: ‘We will consider the Health Select Committee’s report carefully and will take into account any new evidence as it becomes available, but 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.’
The issue was first debated by the committee in January 2018, when Ms Wollaston sent a letter to NHS Digital chief executive Sarah Wilkinson urging her to end the data-sharing agreement with the Home Office.
Use data ‘morally, safely and responsibly’
Reasons the committee put forward for urging NHS Digital to scrap the MoU included fears that the agreement would compromise the GP-patients relationship was shared with other medical organisations, such as the British Medical Association (BMA) and the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP).
However, the Government rejected these demands last month, saying that patients should ‘expect’ their non-clinical data to be shared across departments.
Professor Stokes-Lampard said: ‘Data can be incredibly useful for medical research, but we need to be reassured that the data we are guardians of – NHS patient records – will be used morally, safely and responsibly.’
‘No additional data shared’
A government spokesperson said: ‘Non-clinical information is shared on occasion between health agencies and the Home Office to locate individuals suspected of committing immigration offences. This data is strictly controlled and only shared if there is a legal basis to do so.
‘The Memorandum of Understanding simply formalises existing processes and does not involve additional data being provided to the Home Office. NHS Digital has thoroughly reviewed the processes for sharing non-clinical information in this way and concluded that there was an appropriate legal basis and public interest to do so in specific and limited circumstances.
‘Urgent and emergency care is always available from the NHS regardless of immigration status. We will consider the Health and Social Care Select Committee’s Report and respond in due course.’