Ministers are planning new powers for police forces that would “set aside” the existing duty of confidentiality that applies to patient data held by the NHS and will instead require NHS organisations to hand over data police say they need to prevent serious violence.
Last week, England’s national data guardian, Dr Nicola Byrne, told The Independent she had serious concerns about the impact of the legislation going through parliament, and warned that the case for introducing the sweeping powers had not been made.
Now the UK’s medical watchdog, the General Medical Council (GMC), has also criticised the new law, proposals for which are contained in the Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill, warning it fails to protect patients’ sensitive information and could disproportionately hit some groups and worsen inequalities.
Human rights group Liberty said the proposed law is so broad that police forces will be able to “strong-arm information” from the NHS and other bodies, and that this could include information about people’s health, religious beliefs and political links. It added: “Altogether, these provisions are likely to give rise to significant and severe breaches of individuals’ data rights.”
Under the proposed legislation, which will be debated in the House of Lords in the coming weeks, local health boards will be legally required to provide confidential patient information when it is requested by police. The bill explicitly sets aside the existing common-law duty of confidentiality.
The purpose is to prevent serious violence, but there is already provision to allow patient information to be shared with police where there is a public interest need, such as the threat of violence or preventing a crime. The bill does not set out in detail what kinds of data could be handed over.
Under the proposed new law, police would have the power to demand information regardless of whether the NHS considered it to be in the public interest or not.
Professor Colin Melville, medical director at the GMC, told The Independent: “We are concerned the bill doesn’t protect patients’ sensitive health information and risks undermining the trust at the heart of doctor-patient relationships. We also share concerns held by others that an erosion of this trust may disproportionately affect certain communities and deepen societal inequalities.”
The GMC has raised its objections with the Home Office, which has said that the law will still require organisations to meet data protection rules before sharing any information.
But the doctors’ union, the British Medical Association (BMA), said in a briefing for members of the House of Lords that this would not provide adequate protection.
It said that health information had “long been afforded special legal status, over and beyond the Data Protection Act, in the form of the common-law duty of confidentiality”, which had been upheld by several court cases.
It added that the bill would “override the duty of medical confidentiality, including by legally requiring identifiable health information about individuals to be shared with the police”, saying: “We believe that setting aside of the duty of confidentiality, to require confidential information to be routinely given to the police when requested, will have a highly damaging impact on the relationship of trust between doctors and their patients. A removal of a long-established protection for confidential health information, alongside a broad interpretation of ‘serious crime’, may mean many patients are reluctant or fearful to consult or to share information with doctors,”
Dr Claudia Paoloni, president of the Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association, said the new law would “seriously undermine” the existing trust-based relationship with patients, and would create barriers to them seeking care: “We have significant concerns about what appears to be a cavalier approach to long-held principles, without clear objectives, and which is likely to have unintended consequences. Unless these concerns around individual patient confidentiality can be satisfactorily answered, we believe such powers should be removed from the bill.
“Other than the most serious crimes, which are already covered by precedent on disclosure on public interest grounds, it remains unclear precisely in what way laws to force the release of individuals’ medical records would be used.”
The latest data controversy comes after the NHS was forced to pause plans to share GP patient data with third parties to aid research, after an outcry from some doctors and patients over how the information would be used.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Appropriate safeguards are in place, and any information shared must be proportionate. The bill makes clear that information can only be shared in accordance with data protection laws.”
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