NHS England is coming under increasing pressure from medical groups to reconsider the roll-out of its controversial Care.data scheme for sharing patient records.
The Royal College of General Practitioners (RGCP) has echoed a call yesterday from the British Medical Association (BMA) to significantly improve public awareness of the implications of the plan.
The Care.data service proposes to upload all patient records from GP surgeries into a central database, to be used for medical research by the NHS and private companies such as pharmaceutical firms.
The first upload of data is due to take place in the Spring, but patients who wish to opt out must do so before that time or lose their right to withdraw. A publicity campaign intended to raise awareness of the scheme saw leaflets delivered to every affected household.
But the RGCP and BMA say that campaign has failed to educate the public and more needs to be done before the service can be launched.
“The RCGP believes that Care.data has the potential to deliver enormous benefits for patients by helping the NHS improve the quality of care it delivers,” said RCGP honorary secretary professor Nigel Mathers.
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"While we recognise the substantial programme of activity and materials that has already been developed to communicate Care.data, we believe there is a deficit of awareness and understanding regarding the scheme among many members of the public and professionals,” he said.
"If the roll-out of Care.data is to go ahead according to the current schedule, action is urgently needed to tackle this, and to ensure that there is absolute clarity about how the scheme will work."
Research by the BMA suggested that almost half of patients were unaware of the plans to use their confidential medical data in this way, despite the national campaign.
BMA GPs committee chairman Chaand Nagpaul said: “The BMA is deeply concerned about the government’s public information campaign for Care.data. With just weeks to go until the uploading of patient data is scheduled to begin, patients remain inadequately informed about these proposals.”
A report in the Telegraph claimed NHS officials are in “crisis talks” over the launch of the scheme.
Critics of Care.data have expressed concerns about the protections around data and its ability to be used for purposes other than anonymised medical research, in particular for commercial purposes such as insurance.
NHS England has said in response that it has all the necessary controls in place, although data protection watchdog the Information Commissioner’s Office has revealed concerns about aspects of the plan.