Practices are being advised by the medical charity Doctors of the World to keep refugee, migrant and asylum seekers’ addresses off their records after NHS Digital agreed to share this data with the Home Office.
In January an agreement came into effect between NHS Digital, the DH and the Home Office to hand over patient information to help trace migrants the government says are in the UK illegally. In response to Home Office ‘tracing requests’, NHS Digital agreed to provide patient names, address, date of birth and GP details.
According to The Guardian ‘the Home Office made 8,127 requests for patient details in the first 11 months of 2016, which led to 5,854 people being traced by immigration enforcement’.
The agreement between government departments and agencies says that the release of patient data is in the ‘public interest’ to investigate ‘criminal offence[s]’ under the Immigration Act.
Doctors of the World said the agreement would scare people off seeking medical treatment. The charity regularly sees patients in its own London clinic in Bethnal Green in urgent need of treatment, but who are too scared of having their details passed on to go to an NHS service. It recently helped a woman who arrived at the clinic in labour after having no antenatal care because she was too afraid to access it.
The charity has launched a ‘safe surgeries toolkit’ for GP practices with advice on how to protect undocumented migrants from being traced. It advises practices to display posters declaring their premises a ‘safe space’, informing patients they do not have to provide an address to register, and never asking for passport ID or proof of address.
Practices are advised that they are not required to obtain any proof of immigration status or proof of address from patients.
East London GP Dr Miriam Beeks has already put up posters in her practices telling patients they can register as ‘no fixed abode’. ‘Doctors in general hate the idea that they are being used as immigration officers,' she said. ‘They feel that everybody has a right to healthcare. In this country, healthcare is regarded as a basic human right.
‘Most doctors have no idea about the data sharing agreement. It’s extraordinary that doctors have not been asked about this – there has just been some sort of ministerial dictum. How could they think that doctors would not object to this?’
She added: ‘Doctors should feel confident about standing against this. We are backed up by both NHS and GMC confidentiality rules - our interactions with our patients are confidential. That’s one of the basic human rights of the patient.’
Doctors of the World GP advisor Dr Lu Hiam added: ‘Confidentiality is the cornerstone of the doctor-patient relationship. If people feel that they can't be honest with their doctor, it's hard for us to understand their health issues and give care effectively.’
‘Deterring sick people from getting healthcare has serious consequences. At the Doctors of the World clinics, we see pregnant women avoiding antenatal care and people with serious illnesses such as cancer, who are too afraid to see a doctor. Many people were afraid even before the data-sharing was made public and our concern now is that this fear will increase.
‘The importance of being able to trust your doctor doesn't just apply to migrant patients, it applies to all patients. We want to be able to treat the person in front of us, and be able to assure them of confidentiality.
‘It makes no sense, economically, to discourage people from getting care. If GPs can spot and treat people's illnesses early on, we can prevent costly A&E cases and complex health problems further down the line.
‘Putting this data-sharing agreement in place without consulting doctors is nonsensical, given what a huge impact it has on our professional role. Having some practical things we can do to take a stand against this is really helpful.’
A government spokeswoman said: 'We share non-clinical information between health agencies and the Home Office to locate individuals suspected of committing immigration offences.
'Access to this information is strictly controlled, with strong legal safeguards. No clinical information is shared, and before anything at all is shared there has to be a legal basis to do so. Immigration officials only contact the NHS when other reasonable attempts to locate people have been unsuccessful.
'This simply streamlines the existing process by which Home Office requests for data are considered. No additional NHS data is being provided to the Home Office and anyone in genuine need can always receive treatment from the NHS - urgent or necessary care is never withheld.'