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NHS Scotland launches GP information sharing system

NHS National Services Scotland has launched its Spire system, sharing anonymised patient data for research purposes

The Scottish NHS has gone live with a data sharing system, allowing GPs to share anonymised patient information with researchers.

The Scottish Primary Care Information Resource (Spire), which has been developed with the Royal College of GPs and the BMA Scottish GP Committee, will send encrypted data from GP practices to NHS National Services Scotland (NHS NSS) in order to “better understand the health and social care needs of the population”.

Data sent from the GP records include date of birth, gender, vaccinations, diagnoses and prescribed medicines, but will be encrypted and anonymised before they leave the practice.

The information will then be used by analysts responsible for health statistics, and Scottish health boards will also be able to put in a request for information should they want to perform their own analysis.

Researchers from charities and universities can also request the data, but will have to apply to an independent Spire steering group should they want to do so.

NHS NSS said that permission for research to take place outside the organisation will “only be considered where there is a clear health benefit and patient confidentiality can be maintained at all times”, and will not be sold or made available to insurance, drug or marketing companies.  

Unlike the disastrous Care.data programme in England, which aimed to extract data from GP surgeries to a central database held by NHS Digital, NHS NSS will not routinely collect patient information or keep it in a national database. Instead, it will only collect data for specific purposes, and once the information has been used, it will be destroyed.

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Alan McDevitt, chair of the BMA Scotland GP Committee, said the system meant “GPs can, for example, analyse how many of their diabetic patients have got eye problems, and then maybe do some more screening and interventions to reduce those problems”. 

“They could look at the number of patients who have disabilities and perhaps get them on an exercise programme. There are many different examples of how, with the right information, you can target the right kinds of things to help people with their everyday lives. 

“We need to have a better understanding of the health of Scotland’s population, and know where to spend our money, time and resources to make it better. We need Scotland to be a healthier nation and Spire is essential for that.” 

Unlike Care.data, which was heavily criticised for its failure to raise awareness about the programme and its benefits, NHS NSS is now beginning a four week information campaign. 

The campaign will be using print, radio and digital advertising, as well as posters in GP practices, care homes, libraries and leisure centres to inform the public of the new system. 

Catherine Calderwood, chief medical officer for Scotland, said the caimpaign aimed to ensure “everyone in Scotland is aware of the way we are improving how we use information from GP records, and demonstrate how this will help plan and improve health and care services”. 

Patients wanting to opt out of their information being used can contact their local GP and fill in an opt-out form. Information from GP records will not be available to Spire until May 2017.

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