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Here we go again: New NHS patient database plan sets off alarm bells

Health Sec Hunt wants your records in the cloud by 2018

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A paperless NHS that stores patient records in the cloud will be floated by Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt today. His plan to get medical files into a giant database by 2018 is already stoking fears given the public sector's poor record of protecting sensitive information.

Hunt will claim in a speech to right-wing think tank Policy Exchange in London tonight that billions of taxpayers' pounds will be saved by eventually shifting records into cloud-based systems. He'll also insist healthcare services will be improved as a result.

He said in a statement issued by the Department of Health:

The NHS cannot be the last man standing as the rest of the economy embraces the technology revolution.

It is crazy that ambulance drivers cannot access a full medical history of someone they are picking up in an emergency – and that GPs and hospitals still struggle to share digital records.

Previous attempts to crack this became a top down project akin to building an aircraft carrier. We need to learn those lessons - and in particular avoid the pitfalls of a hugely complex, centrally specified approach.

The cabinet minister is expected to set a deadline of 12 months for hospitals to get their patients' records onto computers to allow that data to be shared with GPs and clinics across England and Wales.

PricewaterhouseCoopers published a report, commissioned by the Department of Health to coincide with Hunt's speech, that highlights the apparent benefits of making better use of technology: it estimated that £4.4bn from the public purse could be saved each year and funnelled into improving the healthcare system.

It claimed that measures such as sending text messages to inform people of negative medical test results, electronic prescribing of medicine and digital patient records will help cut NHS costs.

Hunt admitted that trust needed to be built with the British public, which remains dubious about the data-handling abilities of the NHS and other government services after a string of gaffes that leaked citizens' personal information. And the last attempt at a nationwide patient database turned into a multi-billion-pound fiasco.

Privacy campaigners have already questioned Hunt's plans.

"The Department of Health needs to be absolutely clear who will hold our medical records, who can access them and reassure patients that their privacy will not be destroyed in another NHS IT blunder," said Nick Pickles of Big Brother Watch.

"Detail on how patients will give their consent, who will have access and what rights patients will have after sharing is sparse."

As noted by computer security expert Ross Anderson, this isn't the first time Whitehall has pushed for the sharing of health records throughout the NHS.

"This is about the fourth time in 20 years yet its ferocity has taken doctors by surprise," wrote Anderson in a blog post. ®

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