The doctors’ association lambasted the state of the £13 billion NHS IT rollout and warned that the “break-neck speed” deployment of the records risked “further” eroding doctors’ and patients’ belief in electronic records. The entire programme was facing "failure", it said, unless the rollout was properly evaluated.
It also said it no longer wanted to be associated with the scheme on a promotional publicity video used by the NHS to demonstrate staff support.
In an angry letter to health minister Mike O’ Brien, the BMA expressed “serious concern” that the rollout was being accelerated across the country, in spite of government-commissioned research that found seven in 10 patients did not understand an NHS information pack about the scheme. The rollout is also being accelerated ahead of the publishing of another official study on the records.
Simultaneously, the BMA has written to doctors asking them to boycott the record, and to refuse to upload data to the national database.
The association also criticised the quality of information on the records, after GP data accreditation was ended in 2009 with many surgeries that had not been approved in time.
Patients have only 12 weeks to opt out if they do not want their records on the national data ‘spine’. Concerns have been raised by a number of doctors and patients over the security of the record, who will access it, and the format of the data.
The scheme aims to provide joined-up information for out-of-hours and emergency care, as well as replacing rafts of paper files, in order to improve patient safety.
The BMA said in its letter that patients were receiving “insufficient” information about the choices they can make. It also noted that GPs across the country were complaining they did not have the time to support patients in making an informed choice.
In some cases, records are being created without even implied consent from patients, it added. The BMA has repeatedly insisted patients needed to be “treated like adults” and be asked to opt in, rather than opt-out. Nevertheless, the government chose to retain the automatic opt-in model.
Dr Hamish Meldrum, chairman of council at the BMA and a co-author of the letter to O’ Brien, said it was vital that the rollout was stopped and pilots were properly evaluated.
He also called for information packs to contain an easy opt-out form. The news comes two weeks after the Londonwide Local Medical Committees, which represents 6,000 GPs, began mailing its own posters and opt-out forms to GP surgeries.
“The break-neck speed with which this programme is being implemented is of huge concern,” he stated. “Patients’ right to opt out is crucial, and it is extremely alarming that records are apparently being created without them being aware of it.
“If the process continues to be rushed, not only will the rights of patients be damaged, but the limited confidence of the public and the medical profession in NHS IT will be further eroded.”
The Department of Health provided an immediate public reaction to the letter, stating it was “surprised” that the five-year rollout time frame was being called “break neck” pace, especially “when the programme had been previously criticised for its slow uptake."
“We absolutely support the right of any patient to opt out of having a summary care record and have provided various options to make this process straightforward,” it said. It also reminded patients that their records could only be accessed with their consent each time, and insisted no records were being created without patients being informed at least three months beforehand.