Atos has been given the contract to extract patient records, MPs are told
The beleagured firm Atos has been given the contract to extract patient records from GP surgeries as part of the controversial NHS data sharing scheme, MPs were told yesterday.
The Commons health committee heard that the firm has been given responsibility for removing personal data from medical records, as part of the national programme, which has been delayed for six months amid an increasing backlash.
Last week NHS England ordered the delay after pressure from patients groups, doctors’ leaders and privacy campaigners, who argued that the national plan had been poorly communicated, and that the public had not been properly informed about their right to opt out.
Yesterday, health service officials disclosed that a key contract for the controversial project has been handed to the firm Atos, which has faced criticism over its handling of “fitness for work” tests on disabled benefit claimants.
Last week, the company confirmed it was seeking an early exit from its contract with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in the face of persistent death threats to staff.
During a three-hour select committee hearing yesterday there were bad-tempered exchanges between MPs, officials and ministers about the handling of the NHS data-sharing scheme so far.
MPs repeatedly expressed concern about disclosures in The Daily Telegraph that hospital data has previously been sold to a society of actuaries which provided advice to insurance companies about how to “refine” their premiums.
Ministers and officals said such transactions would never be allowed in future, insisting that rules had been tightened up since the sale of the data in 2012.
But MPs expressed further concern when Max Jones, director of information and data services, for the Health and Social Care Information Centre, disclosed that the contract to extract data from GP records will be held by Atos, a firm which has attracted previous controversy.
Mr Jones said that once data has been extracted from GP surgeries, it would be held in a “safe haven” held by the centre.
Select committees raised fears that the disclosure could further damage public confidence in the scheme, raising fears that personal medical data would be passed to those assessing benefit claims.
Conservative MP Dr Sarah Wollaston said: “There are many sensitivities around Atos – it’s reasonable to see why the public might be concerned about that.”
She questioned whether the DWP would be allowed to access the database.
Dr Dan Poulter, Health Minister said such requests sould not be allowed, stating: “It must be in the interests of the providers and recipients of healthcare and social care in England – that does not mean the DWP.”
Under the NHS scheme, data from GP records will be linked with information from hospitals to give an idea of what happens to patients at all stages.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the BMA general practitioners committee, expressed concern that widespread confusion over the plans could damage the trust between individuals and their family doctors.
He said: “Patients visit their GP, they visit us and they entrust us with very personal, confidential information as part of their life-long record in general practice.
“At the heart of our concern as GPs is that if patients mistrust or are concerned about the security of their data, or have concerns about how this data will be used, that would actually potentially, irrevocably damage that fabric of trust when a patient walks into their GP surgery.
“That may actually have other consequences in the way the NHS records data, it may actually result in patient not attending their surgery at all, for fear or what may happen to their records.
“Or they might be inhibited in being totally open about some things.”
Earlier in the Commons, Andy Burnham, shadow health secretary, proposed changes to the scheme – which has been put on hold for six months – to make it easier for patient to opt out, via phonelines.
The data extracted from medical records includes information on family history, vaccinations, referrals for treatment, diagnoses and information about prescriptions.
It will also include biological values such as a patient’s blood pressure, body mass index and cholesterol levels.
Personal confidential data identifiers will also be taken, such as date of birth, postcode, NHS number and gender.