Should Microsoft and Google have control of NHS medical records?

That's what the Conservatives want to do

Tory plans to hand medical records to private companies and allow patients to alter their medical histories online risk compromising privacy and preventing doctors from gaining swift access to vital data, medical workers and MPs have warned.

Companies such as Microsoft and Google will be allowed to compete for contracts to host patient records online under major reforms outlined by the Conservatives yesterday. The party hopes to save the NHS millions by using the scheme to replace the Government's £12bn NHS IT system that has been dogged by delays since its launch in 2002.

Under the scheme, local NHS trusts would be able to choose from a number of computer systems, with patients given online access to update their records with information on their symptoms and blood pressure. However, just hours after the high profile launch, the British Medical Association warned that the health of thousands could be put at risk by the project, which could also hand hackers the chance of gaining access to personal details.

"We have concerns about the security of web-based systems, and the implications of data being held by the private sector," said Dr Vivienne Nathanson, its head of Science and Ethics. "There would need to be very strong safeguards and an accurate audit trail making it clear what changes or deletions had been made to records and by whom. All NHS IT systems must reach the highest possible standards for privacy, accuracy, security, and useability."

Plans to give patients a username and password in order to access their records, as well as handing them the power to edit their details, also posed a safety risk, she added. "We are concerned by the suggestion that healthcare staff could be restricted from accessing important clinical information. Clinicians need access to records in order to do their jobs," Dr Nathanson said.

"If the information they have is incomplete - for example because pathologists have been prevented from entering test results - there could be implications for patient safety, as well as a negative impact on valuable health research. In a situation where a child was at risk of abuse, we would be very concerned about information being removed from their records by a family-member."

Concerns over the security of medical records have already been raised by the Information Commissioner after a series of basic breaches across Britain, which have seen the privacy of thousands of patients compromised. Some now beleive that allowing a number of private firms to host the data could exacerbate the problem.

Norman Lamb, health spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said that "serious concerns" remained over the lack of safeguards protecting the data in the hands of online firms, who could end up playing "fast and loose" with the information. "There are very real concerns about the handing over of the most sensitive of personal data to private companies," he said. "We could end up with a situation under the Tories in which the incompetence demonstrated by the state in holding on securely to data could be turned into a privatised alterative. Ultimately, our personal data will be no safer."

The Conservatives are also facing opposition to the plan from within its own ranks, with the former shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, describing it as naive and "dangerous in its own right". He also said it would dent public support for reforming the handling of personal data by the state. "Google is the last company I would trust with data belonging to me," Mr Davis said last month.

However, the Tories believe that the new system would save money in the long run, by injecting competition into the system and pulling the plug on the ill-fated NHS IT project. "Labour's handling of NHS IT has been shambolic," Stephen O'Brien, a shadow health minister. "Their top-down, bureaucratic plans have been hugely disruptive to the NHS and have been plagued with delays and cost overruns."

Despite the concerns voiced over its plans, the party said the ideas emerged after careful consultation with GPs and other frontline workers and that no firm decisions had yet been made on what the public would be able to alter. "These reforms haven't been plucked out of thin air," said a party source. "Many GPs believe patients need to be more heavily involved as they are often the ones who know their own health the best."

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