Patients will be put off visiting sexual health clinics, leading to a rise in sexually transmitted infections, if the Government removes legal safeguards in a controversial shake-up of privacy laws, medical charities say.
Strict confidentiality regulations are being dropped because the NHS organisations they apply to were abolished in the Government's controversial health reforms.
Historically known as venereal disease regulations, or VD regs, the measures require that information shared at a sexual health clinic is stored within the clinics' own medical records only, and not shared with the wider NHS, or even within the same hospital, without the patient's consent.
Although the Department of Health is still consulting on what laws or regulations might replace the old VD regs, leading sexual health charities say they are concerned that assurances given over legal protection are weak. If it is decided that information from clinics can be shared without consent throughout the NHS, patients will be put off visiting clinics or talking about intimate details of their sex life, the charities warn.
Yusef Azad, director of policy and campaigns at the National Aids Trust, said there was a real risk, if the regulations were not updated with full legal force, that STI rates could go up as a result.
"People don't want their local hospital A&E to know they got gonorrhoea on holiday last year," he said. "Or their family doctor to know about their recent fling.
"If people are deterred from going to sexual health clinics that would mean less testing, less diagnosis, less treatment, more STIs spreading, with serious implications for our health."
In a survey of more than 4,000 patients at sexual health clinics conducted by the British Society for Sexual Health and HIV, more than half said they would be less likely to attend a sexual health clinic for a test if they knew their records would be seen beyond the clinic, and two thirds said confidentiality had been a "very important" consideration.
A Health Department spokesperson said it was intended that the new arrangements would be just as strict as the old ones.