Health

Fresh debate over NHS computer records

Medical records
Image caption Data from paper records will be uploaded

GPs are considering whether to abandon their involvement in a scheme to put medical records on a computer database.

BBC News understands that talks are continuing to try to make it easier for patients to opt out of the system.

Thirty million people in England have already been formally contacted about the computer record.

Health ministers from the coalition government insist the rollout will continue.

The idea behind the summary care record is that secure details of someone's medication and allergies can be accessed electronically by NHS staff if, for example, a patient has an emergency away from home.

Some GPs support the project and say it is helping provide vital information in out-of-hours cases.

But other doctors are concerned the scheme might damage the trust patients place in them.

The programme in England is well underway, with millions of people having already received letters about it.

The government agency running the database project, NHS Connecting for Health, says the opt-out rate so far is below 1%. Data has been uploaded for 1.5m records in 21 Primary Care Trust (PCT) areas.

They are informed there are changes to the way their medical records will be stored, and warned that the electronic entry of basic information will proceed if they do not take action within four months.

Behind the scenes, talks are continuing about whether the leaflets should contain a specific form allowing patients to opt out of the scheme.

Currently, patients are directed to a website or told to contact their surgery.

Doctors represented by the British Medical Association will discuss calls to abandon the project at a conference next week.

Disquiet

Dr Laurence Buckman, who chairs the GPs' committee, said: "There's a large level of disquiet.

"We're also aware that a lot of patients are very wary of this system, because it assumes they're happy for their data to be uploaded - without actually confirming that.

"If you haven't read the letter carefully or English isn't your first language, you wouldn't know you had to do these things or realise the significance of it.

"Most GPs in England didn't know when the letters were being sent out. The first they knew was when patients walked into the surgery brandishing letters."

Another senior GP said: "It's as though Connecting for Health and the strategic health authorities are trying to reach a critical mass, to ensure it would be difficult for the scheme not to continue."

'Bureaucracy'

An independent review of the records scheme will be published by academics later this month.

On Thursday, the health minister Simon Burns told parliament in a written answer: "Uploading of information to the summary care record will continue to take place, where the relevant GP practices and PCTs agree that patients have been adequately informed about the process."

That position has been criticised by the campaign group, Big Brother Watch.

Its director, Alex Deane, said: "The government wants us to believe that they're serious about privacy and civil liberties. This is their first test and they've failed it.

"The summary care record is an unnecessary and intrusive piece of bureaucracy."

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