Healthcare privateers and drug companies are to be given access to patients’ records and other NHS data under plans to be unveiled by prime minister Cameron today.
The plans, which include letting health privateers run clinical trials inside NHS hospitals, were criticised by campaign group Patient Concern, which described the move as the ‘death of patient confidentiality’.
Cameron is to claim that closer collaboration with the privateers would give patients earlier access to cutting edge treatments.
He is to claim that patients’ records would be ‘anonymised’, but yesterday shadow health secretary Andy Burnham scorned such a claim.
Burnham said: ‘When you have anonymised data it’s still possible to identify individual patients within it.
‘The danger is we will find companies targeting individuals who have a particular condition, so this is an area that the government has to tread very carefully indeed.
‘They make all this talk about red tape. Well, there are some areas where proper regulation is absolutely essential.
‘Proper regulation and essential safeguards need to be in place when it comes to the use of patients’ data.
‘It cannot be done in a way where essential rules are threatened.’
Bioethics expert from the University of Manchester, Dr Sarah Hand, warned: ‘When the research is being done by private companies, of course, we no longer have any guarantee that the research is in the public interest.
‘They may be generating treatments, but bringing them to the market in a way that is not going to make them accessible to the public.
‘I think we should have much more concern about who the companies are that are going to be carrying out this research.’
Roger Goss, from Patient Concern, said: ‘This is the death of patient confidentiality.
‘There is no guarantee that information will be anonymised; in any case anonymised data can just as easily be re-identified.
‘We understand GP surgeries will have the right to refuse to release their patients’ records, but whether patients will ever be told what is happening, let alone have the choice to protect their privacy, is still unclear.’
Patient Concern resigned from a Department of Health consultation committee looking at the plan because it was felt the organisation had been ‘recruited to applaud rather than advise’, Goss said.
BMA Council Member Anna Athow said: ‘This is an explosive issue and heralds the end of patient confidentiality.
‘A main reason for the government’s setting up of an Information Centre, which can extract patient information, is to facilitate and monitor the referring of NHS patients to a diversity of private providers.
‘Campaigners to defend the NHS are concerned that this information could be used to police GPs and make sure that the NHS patients are referred to private treatment centres, instead of the local NHS district general hospital.
‘It could be used to discipline GPs and drive in the market.
‘Under the Health and Social Care Bill, the NHS Commissioning Board and Clinical Commissioning Groups have to obey a “choice mandate” so that private sector companies are used to provide NHS treatment.’