How safe will your medical record be online David Davis raises spectre of Wikileaks over plan to put NHS data on web

David Davis has said the risks far outweigh the benefits

David Davis has said the risks far outweigh the benefits

The privacy of patients could be jeopardised by a decision to give them the right to view their medical records online, it was claimed yesterday.

GPs are to have until 2015 to give all patients full online access to view and edit their records, download their entire medical history and see details of prescriptions and appointments.

But MPs, patient groups and doctors have lined up to warn that the scheme could put records at risk. Senior Tory David Davis said of the decision: ‘How many WikiLeaks lessons does this government need’

Critics say an online system would be vulnerable to hackers, and sensitive medical information – such as life-threatening illnesses, mental health problems and sexual health issues – could be made public by accident.

The Conservatives pledged before the election to give patients the right to check and edit their NHS records online, and Chancellor George Osborne unveiled the 2015 deadline last month in his autumn statement. Patients will not be able to overwrite notes made by a doctor but will be able to point out mistakes or ask for a second opinion from their GP. The doctor could then change the records accordingly.

Yesterday the NHS Future Forum, a group of senior doctors who influence government health policy, backed the scheme.

The Department of Health estimates there will be significant financial benefits, because patients will make fewer visits to their GPs for consultations and for repeat prescriptions that can be obtained over the web.

But last night former Tory home affairs spokesman and leadership contender Mr Davis said the risks of the scheme outweighed the benefits.

He said previous IT failings, such as the loss by HMRC of the tax details of 20million people on an unencrypted disk and the secret U.S. cables obtained by WikiLeaks, had highlighted the danger of relying on computer systems. ‘This medical records policy is dependent on the security that surrounds it, but it is probably unwise,’ he said.

Access: NHS patients will soon be able to check their records online within three years

NHS patients will allegedly be able to check their records online within three years

‘There could be some benefits but the risk is much greater than the benefits.

‘This information could become available by accident or by the action of malicious hackers. How many WikiLeaks lessons does this government need

‘If you put these things online, at some point or another people will get access to them. And with medical records, that is very serious – just as serious as the loss of 20million tax records.’

Joyce Robins, of pressure group Patient Concern, said: ‘If this is to be introduced, we would want to see proper consent to ensure that patients were put on the system only if they want to be there. But the talk today is wider and broader.

‘The security is going to have to be very tight and anything that goes online has to have question marks over it.’

Katherine Murphy, chief executive of the Patients Association, said: ‘Patient confidentiality is paramount. Health records are among the most personal and sensitive information kept about patients and they must be protected. There must be a guarantee that all patient data will be protected and that it will not be possible to trace back information to an individual.’

She added: ‘We would not want online records to create a two-tier system whereby those who are less likely to use the internet system face the brunt of the costs.’

At present patients have a right to see their medical records, enshrined in the NHS Constitution.

However, to do so they must make an application to their GP and usually attend a meeting where a case for access has to be made.

The doctor can then decide whether limited access is appropriate. This process is repeated each time that access is sought. In addition, many health centres demand a charge for access to medical records.

Convenient: Patients would be able to gain access to their medical records out of hours when their regular GP is not available

Convenient: Patients would be able to gain access to their medical records out of hours when their regular GP is not available

Under the new system, patients would be able to access their records, even out of hours. They will be able to view the results of medical tests and discharge notes sent from hospital and obtain repeat prescriptions. Online access to health records could also be used by patients who are overseas on holiday or business, providing foreign doctors with potentially life-saving information.

Before the election, the Tories pledged to hand medical records over to Google and Microsoft to enable patients to access them online. Now they have dropped this idea, instead encouraging GPs to host the online records.

Yesterday a spokesman for the British Medical Association said: ‘While we support the principle of patients having more access to their medical records, we would have to be completely reassured that security was watertight.

‘Patient confidentiality is our number one priority and this should not be compromised. We are also concerned that some groups who do not have access to the internet, the elderly perhaps, may be at a disadvantage and this will need to be addressed.’ Giving patients access to their own medical records would potentially give them more trust in their doctors, the chairman of the NHS Future Forum said.

Professor Steve Field told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘There are about 70 or so practices across the country that give free access to the patients whenever they want them.

‘The idea is that the patients feels more in control of their health and knows what people are writing about them.’

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said: ‘We believe that patients having a direct say in decisions about their care, the principle of “No decision about me without me”, is a very important one in the NHS.

‘But if you’re actually going to share in decisions about your care, you should have full access to your medical record.’

The proposals will form part of a major report from the Forum due out next month. They do not apply to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.