UK govt delays plans for controversial health data system after opposition from medical groups

Controversial plans to compile patient data from local doctors into a single centralised database run by Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) have been delayed amid security concerns, the UK government has announced.

Under the ‘General Practice Data for Planning and Research’ program, patient records from GPs’ surgeries over the last 10 years would be uploaded to a giant database run by NHS Digital.

The system was slated to be up and running by July 1, but it will now launch on September 1 to allow the government more time to address worries over data security, Health Minister Jo Churchill said on Tuesday.

“We will use this time to talk to patients, doctors, health charities, doctors, and others to strengthen the plan, build a trusted research environment, and ensure that data is accessed securely,” Churchill told MPs in Parliament.

The opposition Labour Party’s Shadow Health Minister Alex Norris welcomed the delay to the plans, which he referred to as an “NHS data grab” that had been “snuck out under the cover of darkness.”

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He said there is “no legitimacy” to the government’s plans to sell patients’ data to unknown buyers for unknown commercial purposes.

The British Medical Association and Royal College of General Practitioners have also voiced their opposition to the project, due to the government’s “lack of communication with the public.”

In a joint letter this week, the organisations called on NHS Digital to “take immediate action to run a public information campaign” for the system.

Simon Bolton, who heads the body which provides IT services for the NHS, said patients’ data is anonymised to protect their identity and they can opt out of sharing their details.

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The information collected at GP practices includes data on diagnoses, test results, medications, allergies, immunisations, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity. It does not include names and addresses, apart from postcodes, which the NHS says are coded for protection.

The government has said the new system is an opportunity to strengthen safeguards around GP data, as well as to improve general healthcare. The NHS says its existing data collection service is old and needs to be replaced by a clearer model that reduces the burden on GPs.

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