Security fears mean that half of all GPs say they will consider refusing to put patient records automatically on to a national database in open defiance of the Department of Health (DoH). The database, dubbed the Spine, is part of the NHS IT Progamme and will store medical information on about 50 million patients in England. But four out of five GPs and hospital doctors thought the confidentiality of their patients’ records would be at risk, according to a poll – with 52 per cent of GPs insisting that they would not upload confidential data dealing with patient information, without the prior consent of each patient.

More than 60 per cent said they feared the system would be vulnerable to hackers and unauthorised access by public officials from outside the NHS. Respondents were also concerned about the potential for bribery or blackmail.

Many patients who want to opt out cite a clause of the Data Protection Act, saying that uploading their information on the Spine would lead to, “substantial and unwarranted distress”.

However, the DoH seems in no mood for criticism. Patients who have complained about the idea were sent letters at the end of November flatly rejecting their concerns. The DoH said nobody could have genuine grounds for claiming such distress as a result of having their intimate medical details included on the Spine and as such it, “will not agree to their request to stop the process of adding their information to the new NHS database.”

The government body went on to add: “The DoH believes the summary care record will benefit both you and the clinicians that care for you. The department does not believe that processing information in this way is a genuine reason linked to substantial and unwarranted distress.”

Meanwhile Sir Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer, demanded that GPs should ‘out’ patients who say no to the database. He wanted the names and addresses of objectors forwarded to the DoH in order to write to them to tell them that their request would not be granted because their reasons were not ‘genuine’.
Hamish Meldrum, chairman of the BMA’s GPs’ committee, said: “The chief medical officer’s intervention is not helpful and GPs should not forward these letters. It is possible that some patients might think this is a breach of confidentiality in that a letter sent to their GP is forwarded to somebody else without their consent. This totally contradicts what ministers have said about giving people the right to say they don’t want information uploaded.”

The DoH says that only minimal patient information, such as allergies, repeat prescriptions and adverse reactions will ‘initially’ be uploaded on to the summary care record, which will not contain any diagnoses or medical problems. The first records will be uploaded to a central NHS computer next spring from a small number of GP practices. Once a record is stored on the Spine, there will be no way of deleting it.