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Tories offer NHS IT rescue plan after major patient data losses

Propose switch to decentralised, interoperable databases

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The Tory party has put forward a rescue plan for the NHS IT system in the wake of the latest government data losses, which were revealed over the weekend. Nine English NHS trusts have owned up to large scale losses of personal data, and although in most cases the nature of this data has yet to be revealed, City & Hackney Primary Care Trust reportedly mislaid the names and addresses of 160,000 children.

Speaking on Radio 4's Today programme, Tory Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said that the losses illustrated the dangers of holding all NHS records on a single database that could be accessed by 300,000 individuals. The system need not however, he stressed, be entirely abandoned. Instead, data should be held on smaller, interoperable local databases.

Records could then be shared when needed, with an audit trail held of individual accesses. The Department of Health argued, somewhat unconvincingly under the circumstances, that the central database would protect personal database because of the strength of its security systems. The Tory plan, however, appears to have merit in that it provides a viable, but more secure, way forward using the infrastructure that's being put in place under the government NHS plans. Effectively, this kind of approach could provide the government with an escape hatch, should it wish to use it.

The latest breaches, a total of ten across nine trusts, have emerged as part of the government's post-HMRC data security review. The City & Hackney loss occurred when a disc containing the data failed to arrive at an East London hospital, while other losses are though to have been of data stored on laptops and transferred on flash drives. It's worth noting that as this indicates poor handling practices for bulk data (precisely the problem that has been horribly exposed in government systems recently), neither the centralised system nor the Tory alternative is of itself a fix.

The Department of Health claimed that there is no evidence that the data might have fallen into the wrong hands, but said that the breaches were being dealt with locally by the individual trusts. Initially it said it did not have details of how many patients have been affected, but this morning it estimated a total of 168,000. It is, one might observe, a puzzle that the DoH seems unable to furnish details of the problem, but is able to say that there probably isn't one - how does that work?

It's also worth noting that, were it not for the HMRC blunder and the consequent security review being carried out by Cabinet Secretary Gus O'Donnell, all of the data losses now being reported would still have taken place, but few if any would have been revealed. So far the government has published one interim report on the HMRC incident and a progress report on the broader O'Donnell review. Full reports on both are due "in the spring." ®

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