Patient data loss hushed up to protect practices from worried patients, says Hunt

The loss of more than 700,000 items of patient data was kept quiet by the government to protect GP practices from being inundated with inquiries, health secretary Jeremy Hunt has told MPs.

The DH has admitted that more than 500 cases of potential harm to patients were still being investigated following the discovery last year of more than 700,000 items of undelivered correspondence dating from between 2011 and 2016.

The items, including clinical information such as test results, were supposed to have been delivered to GP practices by the previous primary care support services provider NHS Shared Business Services (SBS). The letters should have been redirected to patients' new practices but went undelivered in three areas of England, the East Midlands, north-east London and the south-west of England.

As first reported by GPonline in December 2016, GP leaders raised concerns about the additional workload for practices once the unprocessed post was eventually reunited with them, with some practices faced with more than 500 items to work through.

Patient risk

The government has now admitted that there was a risk that patients may have been harmed by the blunder.

Mr Hunt, called to the House of Commons to answer an urgent question from Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth, said that so far ‘no patient harm has been identified’. But he said the government took full responsibility for the ‘totally incompetent’ actions of the contractor Shared Business Services (SBS), a joint venture company owned by the DH and IT systems firm Sopra Steria.

Of the 708,000 pieces of data discovered in an SBS secure warehouse, 200,000 were temporary residence forms, with a further 500,000 identified as low risk. A triage of the data identified 2,500 that had potential for for risk of harm and required further investigation. Triage found ‘no patient harm’ from 2,000 of those, with around 500 still being assessed.

Speaking to the Commons public accounts committee, DH permanent secretary Chris Wormald said that NHS England was still investigating 537 cases where there was a potential for patient harm, with 173 having been identified by GPs as requiring further investigation.

GP workload

Asked by committee chair Meg Hillier MP how serious the harm to patients could be, NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens said: ‘By definition the small number of correspondence cases that are left are the ones that we want to chase down. They have had a clinical review initially and now contact is being made with the GP where that is possible to identify.’

Ms Hillier said her committee had heard reports of GPs not being keen to asses the cases affecting their patients which practices are receiving £2.2m funding for. Mr Wormald said the department had not come across those reports.

Mr Hunt told MPs he had acted on the advice of his officials in March 2016  not to make the mix-up public until an assessment of the risk had been completed and practices informed.

‘I accepted that advice, for the very simple reason that publicising the issue could have meant GP surgeries being inundated with inquiries from worried patients, which would have prevented them from doing the most important work - namely, investigating the named patients who were potentially at risk.’

Worried patients

Mr Hunt said he made a written statement about the situation to the House of Commons in July 2016 and the public accounts commitee has been kept up to date on the situation.

‘The Information Commissioner was updated in August, and the National Audit Office is currently reviewing the response. I committed in July 2016 to keeping the House updated once the investigations were complete and more was known, and will continue to do so,' he said.

Mr Ashworth said the ‘catastrophic breach of data protection’ was an ‘absolute scandal’. Mr Hunt, he said, ‘ stands accused of a cover-up’.

Mr Ashworth said: ‘The DH knew about this in March 2016, so why did it take this self-proclaimed champion of transparency until the last day before the House rose last summer to issue a 138-word statement to parliament? That statement said that just "some correspondence" had not reached the intended recipients. When the secretary of state made that statement, was he aware that it amounted to more than 700,000 letters? If so, why did he not inform parliament? If he did not know, does that not call into question his competence?’

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