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Privacy not a medical necessity in UK

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Up to 50 million health records will be placed on Britain's new NHS IT system with or without patients' consent, a report has claimed. The Guardian newspaper said that patients will not be allowed to object to information being loaded on to the system.

The newspaper also claims that the system could make medical information available to the police and security services more easily than before. That claim is rejected by the Department of Health. "The rules are well established and the new electronic record systems do not change this in any way," said the spokeswoman.

A Guardian report based on its investigation said that details of mental illnesses, abortions, pregnancy, HIV status, drug taking and alcoholism could be included in patient profiles, and that there was a lack of safeguards for data once it was on the system.

The new NHS system has been controversial because of its rising cost and slipping time scale. The report said that a virtual "sealed envelope" system was in place to protect sensitive information, but that the seal can be broken by medical professionals if "the interests of the general public are thought to be of greater importance than your confidentiality".

That contrasts with the current situation where police must get a limited amount of information from a GP who knows the patient or must obtain a court order for data.

The NHS spokeswoman said: "The NHS does not permit any external access to its patient records unless this is explicitly required by law. The police have no powers to require access to patients' NHS records. In the absence of a legal requirement, the NHS may, and indeed should, disclose patient information in relation to serious crimes or to protect the public from significant risk."

Patients will not be permitted to stop their information being put on the system, a move which is opposed by the British Medical Association. "We believe that the government should get the explicit permission of patients before transferring their information on to the central database," said a BMA spokeswoman.

Copyright © 2006, OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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