The patient-doctor relationship is the bedrock of the NHS, where patient confidentiality and trust in that system must be constantly maintained. Failure to maintain this trust could have devastating consequences for both individual patients and the NHS as a whole, which is why we are concerned that Greater Manchester Police has said that it wants direct and regular access to medical records.
In an interview with The Guardian, Sir Peter Fahy, the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, has said that “we could do a better job if we have greater access to information, which it is currently hard for us to get.”
Public bodies do not have a great track record on data protection and as sharing private information around more public bodies only increases, so does the risk that it will be leaked, lost or otherwise revealed. Big Brother Watch has previously drawn attention to the scale of data breaches in reports such as Local Authority Data Loss and NHS Breaches of Data Protection Law. Specifically on the subject of medical records we have given evidence to the Health Select Committee (pdf) on the flaws in the proposed care.data scheme.
Patients must be able to trust what they say will remain private and by opening the possibility of this information being shared without consent with police forces, patients may be more reluctant to open up to their doctors. Indeed, the starkest example is victims of domestic abuse who it is well documented, are largely hesitant to come forward. If the police were given details of doctors’ suspicions of domestic abuse as a matter of course, victims may stop visiting their GPs altogether. This would leave some of the most vulnerable people in British society at even greater risk, not less.
Fahy goes on to claim that around 70% of police work is with vulnerable people, stating that police “need to have easier access to information” to help them deal with these problems. He adds that currently even if the police are able to get information, it takes too long: “We need to get it in 20 minutes at 3am.”
Reacting to the story, Dr Tony Calland, of the British Medical Association, has stated that: “The essential principle that runs throughout the recording of medical information is that of confidentiality and trust. This principle has stood the test of time for millennia and still holds good today. At present the checks and balances in the current legal position are satisfactory and whilst the current law may cause some difficulty for the police the case has not been made to recommend a substantial change in the law.”
Whilst the government and public sector more generally discuss new ways to share our personal information, they must do so with the knowledge that this cannot go ahead without there being stricter safeguards put in place. We take this opportunity to reiterate what we have long called for; the need for custodial sentences to punish those found guilty of misusing personal data, rather than judges having to rely on he menial fines that are currently supposed to act as a deterrent.
If the public sector steams ahead with its data sharing agenda without this measure being introduced, it is only a matter of time before serious data breaches start rolling into the news with the perpetrators receiving little more than a slap on the wrist. This simply cannot be allowed to happen.