Tameside GP raises concern about how data grab will affect patients

The meeting of the Tameside primary care committee. Photo: Tameside council.

A doctor in Tameside has raised concerns about how an imminent NHS data grab will affect practices and patients accessing treatment in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Under the current plans by NHS Digital, the medical histories of more than 55 million patients will be inputted into a database which would then be available to academic and commercial third parties for research and planning purposes.

These records would include anonymised mental and sexual health data, criminal records and other sensitive information.

To opt out, people must complete a form and submit it to their GP surgery by the deadline of June 23.  

Unless this is done formally patients’ records will be scraped automatically by NHS Digital, the body that runs the country’s healthcare IT systems, beginning on July 1.

The health secretary, Matt Hancock, first announced the plan in April through blog posts on the NHS Digital website and flyers at GP surgeries.

Dr Amir Hannan, a GP at Haughton Thornley Medical Centres which serves Hyde and Denton, raised concerns about the data grab at a meeting of the borough’s primary care committee.

“I’ve been a GP now for over 20 years and the pressure that I am under and that my colleagues are under, probably even before the pandemic started, in the the last two years, has increased higher and higher,” he said.

“We’ve got 13,500 patients. For patients to opt out they have to download a letter, sign it and hand it back in to the GP surgery. The GP surgery then has to put one or two codes into that record.

“We’re about to send 13,500 messages to patients and we’ve got to put those codes in by the end of June which means we’ll be diverting our staff away from answering the phone calls to dealing with these codes.

“That means if patients have got chest infections, UTIs or whatever that would normally come in they’re going to find it even harder in the next two, three weeks to access GP services.

“That becomes a massive access issue, and that’s my real concern, that a programme like this is impacting on patient care.”

Dr Hannan added: “This might be a difficult programme but the difficulty is it’s preventing patients accessing the care they need because GP’s staff are now diverted to dealing with opt out codes.

“If the patients don’t do anything, all the data from every consultation you’ve had with your GP, the code of data will then get uploaded to NHS digital’s servers. They will then become the data controller for that so they won’t need any permission for what they do with that data.

“Most people know nothing about it so as people start to find out this is going to create a rush and the impact that’s going to have on GPs surgeries is going to be massive.”

Martin Ashton, associate director of commissioning for Tameside and Glossop, said the request had come down for GPs to gather the opt out data ‘while dealing with the impact of a pandemic’.

Chair of the committee, Carol Prowse described the timescale as ‘beyond challenging’.

“To disrupt services at such short notice so you’ve not got time to cover them, to mitigate against them sounds bizarre,” she said.

Peter Denton, the manager of Health Watch Tameside, added: “Let’s forget the merits of the idea, the timing is really bad at the moment.”

Angela Osei, the head of primary care transformation in Greater Manchester told the meeting that she would take the feedback to a central team to respond to NHS Digital to see if there was a way we could ‘get a pushback or a softening of those timescales’.

“What I can’t say is anything will happen, but what I can do is take that as an action for me to at least make the case,” she said.

The NHS says the data will only be used for planning and research purposes, that each application to use it will need approval from advisory groups.

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