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Patient privacy under threat from NHS database

Doctors warn against centralised IT system


Doctors say there will be a serious threat to patient confidentiality if everyone’s medical records are stored on one main database.

The £12 billion IT programme, which should be in place by 2014, will see a centralised electronic medical record system set up for 50 million patients and will link more than 30,000 GPs in England to almost 300 hospitals.

But several frontline medics writing in today’s British Medical Journal have questioned the wisdom of putting the medical records of the UK population on to one central computer.

Consultant Michael Foley said the huge sums of money invested in the database would be better spent improving patient care.

He added that passwords to existing patient records were sometimes shared and computer screens left on in open view.

Confidentiality and security

‘Insufficient attention is paid to confidentiality and security, even though staff can be disciplined for breaching rules on electronic data protection,’ he said.

‘When the medical history of the whole population becomes available on a central computer the potential for loss of confidentiality is obvious.’

Mr Foley, a consultant anaesthetist at the James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough, said: ‘Workers in hospitals or general practice surgeries might seek inappropriate access to medical records because of curiosity or malice, commercial gain, or simple error.’

Anthony Winston, a consultant in eating disorders at Warwick University, said patients should have the right to choose whether their medical details are added to the database.

He added: ‘If patients’ health records are made universally available confidentially is put at risk and the potential consequences are serious.’

Serious consequences

Last month a National Audit Office report found three out of 10 NHS staff ‘knew nothing’ about the IT programme and awareness was lowest among doctors and nurses.

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