Sale of patient drug details ruled illegal

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SELLING DRUG companies details of doctors' prescriptions breaches patients' confidentiality, a High Court judge ruled yesterday.

Source Informatics, a database company, had asked Mr Justice Latham to declare "erroneous in law" guidelines from the Department of Health which say disclosure of such details constitutes "a breach of confidentiality".

Source, a part of IMS Health Group, is based in Loughborough and downloads prescription information from phar- macists' computers on regular basis. It produces a prescribers database for pharmaceutical companies that want to target GPs more precisely with promotions and information about their products. The drug companies pay for the service.

Michael Beloff, QC, who appeared for Source at a recent hearing said that there could be no breach of patients' confidentiality because all the material it received had been "anonymised" so that individuals could not be identified in any way. He said an individual doctor's prior consent was obtained before details were taken from a prescription and that pharmacists anonymised it before it was passed on to the database. The information downloaded includes the doctors' prescribing habits and the type and quantity of the products dispensed.

But an investigation by The Independent reveals that doctors NHS numbers, which allows them to be identified, are being downloaded without the doctors' consent. It also shows that pharmacists, who are paid over pounds 500 a year to download weekly prescription information are not able to see the information they are passing on.

"It's a breach of our code of ethics because we have no idea what information we are downloading. We input all patients and doctor information, they could have access to everything. Following this judgement thousands of pharmacies are breaking the law," said a pharmacist, who did not want to be named.

The Independent obtained a copy of one of the files downloaded, and from the NHS numbers identified the doctors concerned. Of the two contacted, neither had given their consent for their prescribing information to be passed on.

A spokesman for Source, said that only where a doctor's consent had been given was information downloaded by the pharmacists. As a second check all information was passed through a "filter" of consenting doctors before being put on the prescribers' database. All other information was anonymised. "We brought this case to clarify the law on patient confidentiality," he said.

Mr Justice Latham ruled that making confidential information anonymous did not alter is confidential nature and a breach could lead to legal action against pharmacists and doctors. "It follows that in my judgement the (Source) proposal involves a breach of confidence," he said.

Department of Health guidelines, which were issued to health authorities in July 1997 under the title "The Protection and Use of Patient Information", advised that a breach of confidence would occur if either doctors or pharmacists co-operated with the database scheme. Source claimed that as a result of the DoH guidelines family doctors had refused to give consent for their prescription details to be supplied, which damaged Source's business.

A spokesman for the Royal Pharmaceutical Society said: "All pharmacists are bound by the society's rules of confidentiality as laid down in the code of ethics. It is the responsibility of individual pharmacists to ensure that no access to information which identifies patients or doctors."