Confidential NHS records for sale

Over the last year, I’ve mentioned a couple of times a little noticed announcement by Matt Hancock in Parliament. He said that all NHS medical records were planned to be made available to… well, it wasn’t specified. This was in order to do research and planning, again with no apparent specificity. He rounded off by saying that “the culture of secrecy surrounding medical records has to end.”

That last remark, from the mouth of a mid-wit wanna-be technocrat like Hancock, was what troubled me most. If medical confidentiality, always so central to my profession as a doctor that it has become second nature, is now described as an unacceptable culture of secrecy, then no assurance about the scope and limitations of the release of your records to third parties can be taken seriously.

It would, after all, be quite lucrative for HMG to sell records to Pharmaceutical companies ostensibly for research – but without any guarantee they would not be used for direct marketing. It would seem, also, to be potentially legitimate to divulge details of your records to the police and security services to prevent terrorism… or crime… or dissident behaviour. It would be quite hard to be sure that some Secretary of State would not consider the blanket release of records to DHSS officials in the case of sickness claims; or even to employers, if the money were right. We’re told in today’s news that internal vaccine passports are not going to be brought in – but one wonders if it is quite impossible that, come the next viral wave, “planning” might involve notifying people of one’s vaccine status “for the greater good.” After all, you did not object when your medical record was uploaded.

Well, now it appears that the scheme has come to rapid fruition, despite Hancock’s having been so constantly busy saving lives from COVID that one wonders how time has been found to organise it. Your UK medical records are to be uploaded from your friendly family doctor on June 23rd (just two days after they are due to tell us that lockdown is continuing, if SAGE has its way).

This is not the first time we have had to opt out of the centralisation of our NHS records on a creaky national database. Long before I retired, thirteen years ago, many patients (and their doctors) were afraid that the plan to upload all their GP records on to a national NHS database available to the 1.2 million NHS employees and any number of hackers, far more skilled than government programmers, was a bad idea.

Those who read the recurrent news stories about massive data leaks from Facebook, banks and so on had to let their GPs know they objected, so that the latter could enter an opt-out “Read Code” on their computer record. I doubt it made any difference when the centralisation actually took place, and even if it did, patients now have to go through the same rigmarole again, possibly with equally doubtful effect, to prevent their data being made not only highly insecure, but available for anyone Matt Hancock or his successors deem to have a legitimate reason to buy it.

Fortunately, there is an opt out page here, or if (like me) the algorithm refuses to believe in your existence even when you enter your NHS number, there also a paper form here.

I’m amused by the heading of the latter form: “Choose if your confidential patient information is shared for research and planning”: if it’s shared, then it’s not confidential any more, is it? Especially when there are no clear limits as to with whom, and for what reason, it may be shared. It reminds me of the old saying, “A secret is something you only tell one person at a time.” Only in this case it’s your secret, and them passing it on.

Of course, the really convenient thing would be to have your entire dealings with the state on the same readily accessible computer file. This could include all the kinds of things that were mistakenly read into the data protection information of the current NHS app by conspiracy theorists – your gender, sexuality, and religious affiliation (from the census, just completed), your employment record, criminal record, hate non-crimes, even your voting record (just in case one party affiliation or another becomes a mark of possible sedition, as apparently in the USA now).

This post is probably irrelevant to most people outside the UK, for which I apologise. And needless to say, if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear from the State’s knowing all about you. Or from commercial organisations doing legitimate research, or legitimate planning. We all know their motives are uniformly benevolent, because they’re all run by billionaire philanthropists. Edward Snowden is no doubt wrong, both about the surprising amount of compromising information in most people’s closets, and the State’s tendency to misuse it when expedient.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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