Government to access patients’ data without GPs’ knowledge or consent

Leeds-based NHS Digital – formerly known as NHS Health and Social Care Information Centre – has agreed to hand over patients’ information to the Home Office without GPs’ consent if it believes patients have committed an immigration offence.

If you disagree with this, please tell:

The information NHS Digital is handing over is a patient’s last known address, date of birth, full name, and date of NHS registration.

It is not expected to include clinical information, but this may not apply for those held in immigration detention. The details are in a Detention Services Order (DSO) re-released in May 20162. The specimen consent form and process of gaining the patient’s signature to it, without legal advice or other advocacy support for the many with mental illness or who lack mental capacity, has been described as ‘non-consent obtained under duress’.

A message from a Yarl’s Wood detainee

The Home Office will use the information to deny access to benefits to people who have committed an immigration offence.  In more serious cases it will arrest, detain, or deport them.

Until January 2017, when this memorandum of understanding came into effect between NHS Digital and the Home Office, if the Home Office wanted patient data it had to ask GPs. According to charity Doctors of the World, they often refused.

This is because they believe health care is a human right, patient confidentiality is central to their professional ethics and no one should be afraid to go to the doctor  because they fear they might be punished.

Docs Not Cops

A letter to the Guardian on 27 January 2017 signed by organisations such as Doctors of the World, the National Aids Trust, and the British HIV Association warned that the agreement:

“marks the intrusion of a political agenda into how our medical records are kept and safeguarded. It shows that NHS Digital cannot be trusted with our confidential information.”

The letter continues,

“We are especially worried at the impact on trust in the NHS among migrants. They include people who have been tortured, or trafficked, people who have serious communicable diseases, people who have vulnerable dependents including children. The migrants affected by these measures retain the right to access a wide range of NHS services perfectly lawfully. But doctors can no longer provide the assurances of confidentiality they once thought they were able to. This is a further obstacle to confident healthcare access and will in our view cause harm both to individual and public health.”

Fiona Caldicott, the NHS’s national data guardian, will also look at the practice to ensure that all uses of patient information are “transparent, legal and proportionate.”

An article in the British Medical Journal reports that Jessica Potter, a clinical research fellow at Queen Mary University of London who is undertaking research on migrants’ access to healthcare in the UK, believes that it will deter many undocumented migrants from seeking healthcare or encourage them to give false names and addresses.

Various studies show links between the threat of deportation and reluctance to seek healthcare. One study of 268 legal immigrant students in Sweden showed that threat of deportation was the main determinant for avoiding seeking healthcare for treatment of HIV. And a review of 66 studies on barriers to healthcare for undocumented migrants found that understanding the healthcare system, shame, and the fear of deportation were the main barriers.
This info is from articles in the British Medical Journal:

BMJ 2017;356:j911 doi: 10.1136/bmj.j911 (Published 2017 February 22)


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