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Health minister asks elderly patients what they think of data-sharing

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The NHS turned 65 today, which has led to some quarters drawing an unfavourable analogy between the health service and a patient who has just reached retirement age.

It may be an irritating bit of anthropomorphism to describe the taxpayer-funded body as a living, breathing thing, but it doesn't stop ministers from questioning the current health status of the NHS.

Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary of State, issued a refreshed mandate today on the government's future plans for the service. His department now wants Brits to respond to those proposals, which Whitehall hopes to implement in the autumn.

The Department of Health has previously laid out its plans for data-sharing within the NHS. It is now seeking views from elderly patients on that topic to work out how to "improve" care for vulnerable members of society.

It specifically asks:

What do you think are the main barriers to data sharing between services to support patient care?

Can you highlight any examples of where data sharing to support patient care is happening effectively?

Hunt said that "radical improvements" were needed to ensure that elderly and vulnerable patients get better care in and out of hospital.

A big part of that push involves his plans to make the health service "paperless" by 2018. The Cabinet minister has said that there is currently too much duplication on how medical history is gathered and filed.

Hunt wants to end that practice by digitising medical records within the NHS. However, fears have been expressed about the likelihood of data breaches increasing as the system moves online.

In April, the minister told your correspondent that NHS patients who have refused to give consent to existing data-sharing mechanisms would be safeguarded under the government's new plans to open up information across the service.

The Cabinet minister said at the time that the 750,000 patients throughout England who have already opted out of having their data shared would be automatically protected under the government's new proposals.

Members of the public have until 27 September to submit their views on Hunt's mandate. The consultation document can be found here (PDF).

Separately, the government has today announced a new state-owned company dubbed Genomics England. It comes off the back of Prime Minister David Cameron flagging up plans in December last year for a massive £100m NHS database containing information about patients' DNA that will be sold - apparently in anonymised form - to private companies hoping to cash in by using these rich datasets to create "personalised medicines and individualised treatments".

Genomics England, led by former chair of the Medical Research Council, Sir John Chisholm, has begun work on a business plan, which it promises will be created "with the appropriate patient groups and safeguards". ®

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