Who owns patient records?

The proposed Heath and Social Care bill has certainly got temperatures raised at the British Medical Association, not least because the organisation claims that the new legislation could threaten the confidentiality of patient medical records.

As the BMA point out, the bill would give bodies including the Commissioning Board, the NHS Information Centre, and the Secretary of State broader powers to access confidential information, but provides little guidance on how this power could be wielded, who could potentially have access to the records in the future, or how it will be safeguarded.

The BMA’s main concern seems to be that patients may withhold information from doctors if they become concerned for their privacy. Dr Vivienne Nathanson, the BMA’s head of science and ethics, recently said that the government had placed its desire for access to information over the need to respect patient confidentiality, adding:

There is very little reference to rules on patient confidentiality that would ensure patients are asked before their information is shared or guarantee that the patient’s identity will not be revealed. Fears that their data may be shared with others may result in patients withholding important information; this may not only affect their own health but has implications for the wider health service.

There has never been a level playing field when it comes to accessing medical records and data. Back in 2006 Dr Foster Intelligence was given exclusive access to NHS data in an agreement with the DoH – and it seems any big pharmaceutical companies with deep enough pockets can lay their hands on this supposedly sacred information (see this blog post on Dr Foster by journalist Robert Munro).

The BMA has voiced support for the use of anonymised data for “secondary health purposes” but maintains that identifiable information should not be disclosed unless patients give explicit consent. The Department of Health has said that the bill does not change any of the existing legal safeguards, “which are set out in the Data Protection Act and the common law of confidence.”

You can track the progress of the Bill on the British Medical Association website.

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