Doctors win delay to GP data-sharing plan

By Robin Stride

Doctors who protested at a controversial NHS Digital plan to share GP records with third parties have secured more time to try and ensure they – and patients – fully understand the implications.

According to BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT (sic), millions of people were unaware of the plan due to a ‘total lack of engagement’ by the health service’s body.

Consultants’ and GPs’ organisations also strongly objected to the plan to shift NHS patients’ GP information to a new database which could be shared with researchers, academics, and other third parties – unless people opted out by 23 June. 

Dr Mark Vanderpump

Dr Mark Vanderpump, chairman of the London Consultants Association, welcomed the postponement – described by the BMA as an important win for doctors and patients – until further discussion with patients as to how their data is handled. 

He said: ‘In the private sector, patients are routinely provided with copies of all correspondence and investigations. It is considered good practice to include the NHS GP in all patient correspondence, but this is only with the consent of patients.’

Mr Richard Packard, chairman of the Federation of Independent Practitioner Organisations, said private sector consultants had to comply with General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) rules requiring patients to opt in to allow use of their data. 

He told Independent Practitioner Today: ‘It seems strange that NHS Digital is requiring the opposite. 

‘The important thing about any data capture is that it is accurate, transparent and useful. The manner in which these data will be used above and beyond population healthcare planning should be made explicit, particularly if it is to be exploited commercially.’ 

Inadequate communication

BMA GP IT lead Dr Farah Jameel said: ‘We knew there was insufficient time until the first extraction – originally planned for the 1st of July – to allow for the public to have a proper understanding of what the programme was intended for and to give enough time to make fully informed choices on whether they should opt out or not.

‘We know from our members that many family doctors feel that all their patients may not yet know what’s changing and many practices do not believe that they themselves have been given the right level of information nor adequate time to comprehensively understand the programme, its merits and the safeguards it will operate within. 

‘It’s clear that previous communications from NHS Digital on this programme has, frankly, been either inadequate or non-existent.’

‘Collection of GP Data for Planning and Research’ is now set to go ahead on 1 September. 

Benefits of GP data

NHS Digital argues that data saves lives. In a statement, it said: ‘We have seen that in response to COVID-19 and the successful roll-out of the vaccine programme. The vaccine roll-out could not have been delivered without the use of data to ensure it reached the whole population, prioritising them in the most effective way.

‘It has been used to help better understand and develop cures for serious illnesses, such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

‘Making better use of data will benefit millions of people right across the country. It will rapidly improve people’s care and health.

‘To provide more time to speak with patients, doctors, health charities and others to strengthen the plan even further, the collection of GP data for Planning and Research in England has been deferred from the 1 July to the 1 September 2021.’

NHS Digital’s chief executive Simon Bolton said: ‘We intend to use the next two months to speak with patients, doctors, health charities and others to strengthen the plan even further.’

Independent oversight

The organisation stated that data can only be accessed by organisations which will legitimately use the data for healthcare planning and research purposes, and they will only get the specific data that is required. 

It added: ‘All requests are subject to independent oversight and scrutiny, and audits are conducted to ensure it is being used for the purpose it was requested for.

‘But it is important patients who would rather opt out of sharing their data for planning and research purposes still have the right to do so through the National Data Opt Out and this will allow them more time to make this decision.’