Wednesday 9 June 2010

Government U-Turn On Cutting Back 'Database State'

Hope that the new government might actually be serious about rolling back Labour's obsession with placing as much detail as possible about citizens onto centralised databases has already taken a knock - and it's only taken a month.

Today, it has been reported that the Con-Dems plan to push ahead with the controversial Summary Care Record (SCR) database, which I wrote about at the end of March.

The problem with the SCR is the same as the problem with every government database. As more and more confidential information is added, the prospect of personal data falling into the wrong hands becomes increasingly serious. With the SCR scheme, tens of thousands of NHS staff will have a swipe card to enter the system, increasing the chances of information passing to other state agencies, leaking to tabloid journalists or simply being accessed to satisfy the curiosity of medical staff.

We know incidents of unauthorised access to data take place - just yesterday, a Hampshire police officer was convicted of accessing computer records for his own personal use.

In May, Computer Weekly reported on a confidential study by researchers at University College London into SCRs, which concluded:

When we studied the way health care professionals felt about the SCR in 2008, most of them said that they didn't really see the point of it: if you have an accident they would much rather get the information from you directly, either by examining you or by talking to you or your carer.

Given that it's not particularly effective at improving health care, the project has to be seen to be a success in some other way.

As a result, the reported "benefits" of the SCR consist of things like "the growth in number of patient records on the system," and "the number of times that SCRs have been accessed..."

In other words, adding more and more data to the SCR system is itself an indicator of the system's success! However, the inexperienced new health minister with responsibility for IT, Simon Burns, seems to have already become the messenger for his wily departmental officials. In a written parliamentary answer that could have come from any of his Labour predecessors, Burns says:

"Uploading of information to the summary care record will continue to take place, where the relevant general practitioner (GP) practices and primary care trusts (PCTs) agree that patients have been adequately informed about the process, and properly enabled to opt out should they wish, and where GP practices and PCTs are satisfied that data are of an appropriate quality for sharing."

As most Primary Care Trusts are enthusiastic about adding information to the SCR system to make it more "successful", it would therefore appear that SCRs are here to stay, regardless of whether most GPs see the point of them or not. Labour isn't going to mount a challenge to one of its pet projects (even one that came about from little more than a ten-minute briefing to Tony Bllair). And although one of the Lib Dems' new intake of backbenchers, the Cambridge MP Dr Julian Hippert, yesterday tabled an early-day motion that "calls on the Government to halt all SCR updates", it so far has just one signature - his own.

It is still possible, however, to formally opt-out of having your own SCR created - see the NHS Confidentiality campaign's Big Opt Out website for more details on how to do so.

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