Legal fears over sharing patient records

GPs fear they could be sued for sharing patient records with the NHS Spine, after it emerged that two Bolton practices will become the first to link to the database within weeks.

More than 14,000 patients at the Bradshaw Brow practice and the Kearsley Medical Centre were due to receive letters as GP went to press, giving them eight weeks to opt out of having their  records on the database.

If they do not object, or do not respond, summary versions of their patient records will be uploaded to the NHS spine after a further eight-week wait.

These will be accessible to staff within A&E departments and out-of-hours providers who hold smartcards that enable them to view patient records.

The records will contain demographic information, diagnoses, recently prescribed medications and details of adverse events. Patients will eventually be able to view their records via the Health Space website.

Connecting for Health, the arms-length DoH agency responsible for NHS IT, will roll out the summary record system across Bolton by the summer, and in six other PCTs by the end of 2007.

If patients want to opt out of sharing their data, or want to edit it before sharing it, GP practices are expected to discuss this with patients. Practices can add Read codes to records preventing them from being shared.

Professor Mike Pringle, the agency’s national clinical lead for general practice, said he did not want implementation of the system to significantly increase GP workload.

‘If it looks like it is, we will need to rethink it,’ he said. But he said evidence suggested few patients would opt out.

However, GPC member Dr Trefor Roscoe, also a member of the GPC’s IT committee, said concerns remain that the system could expose GPs to being sued: ‘I don’t think the eight-week notice fulfils the requirements of the Data Protection Act.’

He believed GPs could be open to legal challenge unless they could prove they had been through all records to identify data that could be contentious, and invited patients to talk about the ramifications of sharing it.

Dr Roscoe said practices might be at risk if they unwittingly shared data about patients who were in the witness protection programme or who had changed their identity because of domestic abuse.

Concerns remain that records could be accessed inappropriately. Alerts will be generated if NHS staff access records when a patient has not attended the location where it was accessed.

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