Friend or foe?

The debate over the risks and benefits of the NHS’ medical record database scheme continues.

As the NHS prepares to establish its controversial database, pooling patients’ medical records into a central database, former health minister Lord Darzi has entered the debate, speaking out in support of the “data revolution”.

“Better data is key to improving the quality of care,” said Lord Darzi in his HSJ article. He also claimed that the data analysis made possible with a centralised record database could help tackle the financial problems of the health service and offer “keys to the NHS’ survival”.

The interview, which health secretary Jeremy Hunt later described as “brilliant” on Twitter, also sought to answer the widespread concerns over patient confidentiality within the new database.

“All healthcare innovations carry risks,” said Lord Darzi, “but they must be balanced against the benefits. In this case the risks…are very low and the benefits potentially huge.”

Lord Darzi’s assertions did not prevent ministers continuing to criticise the scheme, with former shadow home secretary David Davis claiming the database would offer a “backdoor” for the police to access patient medical records. He also suggested that, despite promised anonymity, records serve as a person’s “fingerprint” and could easily be traced back to their owners:

“Let me be clear,” he said “people can be identified from this data.”

Phil Booth of medConfidential, a medical privacy campaign group, said the “lack of independent transparency and oversight” was “worrying”, while Brian Jarman of healthcare information provider Dr Foster said there was “simply too much data and the risks that something leaks are too great”.

The Department of Health responded to these concerns, reassuring the public that there were “strong legal safeguards in place” and that any “release of identifiable data without consent would only be in a very limited number of exceptional circumstances”.  

Unless patients explicitly opt out of the scheme, all medical records will be transferred to the database from May 2014, which is to be managed by the Health and Social Care Information Centre.