NHS Digital ‘entirely inappropriate’ in sharing patient data with Home Office

NHS Digital’s decision to share patient information with the Home Office is “entirely inappropriate,” according to the chair of the Health and Social Care Committee.

The comments come following the publicity of the committee’s report into the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Home Office, the Department of Health and Social Care and NHS Digital regarding tracing immigration offenders.

The committee has said that it is not satisfied that the chair and chief executive of NHS Digital have been sufficiently robust in upholding the interests of patients, understanding the ethical principles underpinning confidentiality or in maintaining the necessary degree of independence from the government.

In January, its MPs wrote to NHS Digital requesting it to suspend its involvement in the MoU and undertake a thorough review of the consequences of sharing addresses with the Home Office for immigration tracing purposes.

This request was rejected by the government and the chair and chief executive of NHS Digital were subsequently questioned by the committee, but its MPs warned that their responses to the “serious concerns” raised in the session were “wholly unsatisfactory.”

The report, ‘MoU on data-sharing between NHS Digital and the Home Office,’ repeats the committee’s call for NHS Digital to suspend its participation in the MoU until the ongoing review of the NHS Code of Confidentiality is complete, which it says should consider the health concerns raised by Public Health England on health-seeking behaviours.

Chair of the committee, Dr Sarah Wollaston, said that there is a “clear ethical principle” that data held for the purposes of health and care should only be shared for law enforcement purposes in the case of serious crime.

“NHS Digital's decision to routinely share information with the Home Office with a lower threshold is entirely inappropriate,” she warned. “This behaviour calls into question NHS Digital’s ability to robustly act on behalf of patients in the event of other data sharing requests including from other government departments in the future.

“It is absolutely crucial that the public have confidence that those at the top of NHS Digital have both an understanding of the ethical principles underpinning confidentiality and the determination to act in the best interests of patients.”

Sarah Wilkinson, chief executive of NHS Digital, said: “We will consider the health select committee's report carefully and will take into account any new evidence as it becomes available, but we have been through a rigorous process to assess the release of demographic data to the Home Office.

“This has established that there is a legal basis for the release and has assured us that it is in the public interest to share limited demographic data in very specific circumstances.”

Dr John Chrisholm, BMA medical ethics committee chair, welcomed the report, warning that the MoU “risks undermining the very foundation of the doctor-patient relationship.”

He added: “As stated by the committee, most immigration offences clearly do not meet the high public interest threshold for releasing confidential data, which according to NHS England, the GMC and even NHS Digital’s own guidance, should be reserved for cases which involve ‘serious’ crime.

“We must therefore question NHS Digital’s ability to act as a trusted custodian for the data it holds and its assertation that it prioritises patients’ best interests when handling their data.”

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