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NHS Digital must stop sharing patients’ data for immigration purposes, says Health Committee

by Valeria Fiore
6 February 2018

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The Health Committee wants NHS Digital to withdraw from a memorandum of understanding (MoU) that allows it to share patient’s data with the Home Office.

In a letter to NHS Digital addressed to chief executive Sarah Wilkinson, chair of the Committee Dr Sarah Wollaston said that the current MoU should undergo a review, because the way it currently operates might compromise ‘data sharing in other vital areas such as medical research’.

She said: ‘We request that NHS Digital suspend the MoU immediately, and undertake a further and more thorough review of the public interest test.’

The Health Committee found that there was a lack of consultation with those bodies concerned about confidentiality, such as the National Aids Trust and Doctors of the World, the General Medical Council (GMC) and the National Data Guardian (NDG).

She wrote: ‘This lack of consultation has resulted in a situation where data-sharing is taking place in a manner which is incompatible both with the guidance on confidentiality given by the GMC and the NHS Code of Confidentiality. We find that situation unacceptable.

‘The evidence which has been presented to us in the course of our brief inquiry suggests very strongly—contrary to your own assessment—that the public interest in the disclosure of information held by the NHS is heavily outweighed by the public interest in the maintenance of a confidential medical service.

It comes after GP with the Doctors of the World charity Dr Lucinda Hiam told the Health committee earlier this month that the MoU could turn the ‘GP into a place that [immigrants] can also fear’, if they see their ‘immigration status’ turned against them.

In the letter, Ms Wollaston also said that advice from Public Health England (PHE) had gone unnoticed.

The executive agency of the Department of Health had warned that sharing information based on confidential health reports for immigration purposes ‘could present a serious risk to public health and has the potential to adversely impact on the discharge by PHE of the Secretary of State’s statutory health protection duty’.

Commenting on Ms Wollaston letter, the BMA ethics committee chair Dr John Chisholm said: ‘We know this agreement is already having a real effect on patients – and in turn their relationship with doctors. That relationship is built on a foundation of trust, and the arrangement between NHS Digital, the Home Office and the Department of Health is eroding this.

‘If patients are refusing to visit the doctor for fear of repercussions from the Home Office, it is not only a danger to that individual’s health, but it could also pose a threat to the wider wellbeing of the public if communicable infectious diseases are being diagnosed and treated at a later stage.’