Personal medical data should be kept private

The BCS has called on the Government to drop proposed legislation which the society says could compromise the privacy of...

The BCS has called on the Government to drop proposed legislation which the society says could compromise the privacy of patients' personal medical data, writes John Kavanagh.

The BCS is calling for the withdrawal of clause 59 of the Health and Social Care Bill, which gives the health secretary discretion over the way such sensitive information is used and shared between medical organisations.

At the very least, the society wants a full and urgent review by the data protection commissioner.

"We are particularly concerned that this provision could undermine the excellent progress that has been made towards the greater use of electronic clinical information to deliver good patient care," says Mike Bainbridge, chairman of the BCS Primary Health Care Specialist Group. "We believe clause 59 has no place in proposed legislation which is in other respects soundly based. It should be withdrawn."

The BCS statement says, "The declared purpose of the clause is to enable the secretary of state to require or permit patient information to be shared between organisations for medical purposes where he considers that this is in the interests of improving patient care or in the public interest.

"This implies new powers for the secretary of state in judging how individual privacy should be balanced against the release of information for administration and research. However, there is already a considerable amount of legislation, some of it enforced by the data protection commissioner, which seeks to address this balance. Why are new provisions required?

"The answer is certainly not to be found in clause 59, which gives the secretary of state a miscellany of powers. Some enable him to put additional restrictions on data flows; others allow him to dispense with existing restrictions. These powers could be used in a wide variety of situations.

"Provisions are being stockpiled, just in case they may be needed."

The BCS says it is in favour of using anonymous medical information in the public good - but not divulging an individual's data to be shared between organisations. It points to reports of insurance companies having access to medical information before entering policy agreements.

The statement continues in no uncertain terms, "Ministers have recently emphasised the importance of patient consent in the removal of human tissue. Yet the Government is now introducing legislation that will limit the right to consent to the use of personal healthcare information.

"At the same time it is seeking to create an assortment of powers, not always clearly defined, whereby the secretary of state can dictate the way patient information is divulged. If the secretary of state wishes to introduce changes, he should first make a case to support them."

The statement adds, "Clause 59 is likely to seriously damage relations between clinicians and their patients, and between clinicians and those seeking to research and report healthcare."

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