GPs and medical practioners have expressed concerns over secret Government plans to access the NHS medical records of benefit claimants, warning that it could deter vulnerable people from visiting their doctor.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is currently holding secret talks that could allow them the right to access medical records to help determine a person’s eligibility for sickness and disability benefits.
However, the move has sparked outrage among civil liberty campaigners and GPs, who warn the practice could deter vulnerable people from accessing heathcare services out of fear that their private medical information could be divulged to government officials.
They claim that the plans resemble those of a controversial data-sharing scheme between the Home Office and the NHS, which has resulted in some immigrants to the UK becoming too afraid to access medical services.
Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said the plans could “deter vulnerable people from seeking medical assistance when they need it”.
She added: “We do not hold our patients’ confidential data to help other organisations check their eligibility for welfare, their immigration status, or any other function not related to their health and wellbeing.
“If the reports are true, the DWP, like the Home Office before them, must not consider GP patient data as an open resource to support them to carry out their duties.
“We are doctors, whose first interest is the care of our patient: we are not border guards, and we are not benefits assessors.”
Nimrod Ben-Cnaan, Head of policy and profile at Law Centres Network, said the proposal risks breaching patient-doctor confidentiality.
He said: “Less than a year ago, the government decided that even its hostile environment policies did not justify sharing migrants’ personal data between NHS and the Home Office, except in very specific circumstances.
“Now, however, the government plans to share NHS patient data of people who claim health-related benefits with DWP, and to do so automatically. What has changed?
“It is legally and ethically questionable”, he said.
“We call on Parliament to take an urgent look at this programme and other planned sharing of NHS patient data with other public bodies.”
Genevieve Edwards, director of external affairs at the MS Society, added: “Rather than the DWP or assessors being able to automatically access records, we’d want to see a system which would allow GPs to send data on request, with the patient’s informed consent at every step in the process.
“Any changes to the data collecting mechanisms must be fully consulted on with disabled people, healthcare professionals and charities.”
A DWP spokesperson said that any information would not be accessed “without explicit and informed consent”, adding: “Some patients are happy to share information which is why we are able to use their information to help them claim health related benefits most quickly.
“Anything to make this an easier and quicker experience for claimants would help them, which is why we are simply exploring potential options to improve the current system.”