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Health department data practices are sick, frowns ICO

Doctors not impressed either

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The Department of Health has been told by the Information Commissioner's Office and the British Medical Association to improve the way it looks after patients' records.

The ICO issued a formal practice recommendation to the Department on Monday. It is the second time the ICO has imposed formal recommendations on the DoH - last April it was sent one over the way it handles Freedom of Information requests.

The data regulator found some good central practises but was concerned that these were not followed locally. The full release is here (pdf).

The very next day the Department of Health was asked to remove patient health records from government proposals to share data between departments and other bodies. The British Medical Association and seven other health care bodies asked Jack Straw to exempt confidential health records from the Coroners and Justice Bill, which aims to make government data-sharing even easier.

Dr Hamish Meldrum, Chairman of Council at the BMA, said: “The doctor-patient relationship is based on trust. If patients cannot be 100% sure that their records are confidential, they will inevitably be reluctant to share vital information with their doctor.

“The Justice Secretary has indicated that he is willing to amend this legislation to protect a person’s right to confidentiality. We welcome the fact that he is taking people’s concerns on board, and hope he will provide assurances that confidential health information will be exempt.”

Today the BMA is complaining that patients involved in trials of electronic summary care records are finding it difficult to get their records removed from the database.

Doctors complained to Pulse magazine that patients in trial areas in Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent had been told they must attend meetings either with their GP or another NHS adviser in order to get their records removed. Doctors described such practises as intimidating for patients concerned about privacy.

And finally the government got another kicking this week over proposals to introduce Amazon-style feedback for doctors.

The latest piece of Web2.0twattery, called Working Together - Public Services on Your Side, proposes to get patients to leave comments on GP care in the same way they already can for hospitals.

The proposal said: "Often the best way for people to understand whether a service is right for them is to see what other similar users thought of that service. This is the experience of millions of customers who use Amazon.com or iTunes, and while these are for simpler, less important services like books or music, the same principle of valuing the opinions and views of others applies in the decisions we make around our health and care as well."

The BMA described such moves as akin to Strictly Come Dancing when they were flagged last year.

BMA chairman Meldrum said consumerist principles were being applied too broadly to healthcare.

He said: "Patients are not supermarket customers, and doctors are doing more than providing an easily rated commodity. Healthcare is complex – it’s about partnership. The suggestion that your treatment in the NHS can be as easily rated as a stay in a hotel is simplistic.

"There is a risk that this exercise could reduce NHS care to a meaningless popularity contest encouraging perverse behaviours and an emphasis on the superficial."

In a further blow to government hopes for NHS websites, an investigation by Pulse Magazine found that almost half the surgery entries on the NHS Choices website - which will host the patient reviews - contain wrong information. The magazine rang 200 doctors' surgeries in 111 Primary Care Trusts and found 45 per cent of web entries had errors over opening times. More detailed checks on ten entries found seven had at least one mistake about opening times. ®

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