NHS sends confidential patient letters to be typed by cheap secretarial agencies in India
A series of London-area hospitals has admitted using cheap secretarial agencies in India

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UPDATED:

15:54 GMT, 10 September 2012

The NHS is sending confidential letters about patients to India to be typed, it emerged today.

Indian data entry staff will have access to private information about medical appointments and conditions.

A series of London-area hospitals has admitted using cheap secretarial agencies in India.

One, Great Ormond Street, has sent more than 123,000 letters dictated by doctors and consultants.

Outsourced: A series of London-area hospitals, including Great Ormond Street (pictured), has admitted using cheap secretarial agencies in India to type patient letters

Outsourced: A series of London-area hospitals, including Great Ormond Street (pictured), has admitted using cheap secretarial agencies in India to type patient letters

Managers allow the scheme despite concerns over poor security at some Indian companies.

Hospitals say they use encryption and passwords to protect confidentiality. They pay by the line or by the word.

But Labour MP John Spellar, who obtained the figures under Freedom of Information law, called it 'an outrageous revelation'.

He told the Evening Standard: 'Unemployment in the UK is at unacceptable levels. This work could easily be based and carried out in the UK, maintaining jobs and keeping opportunities for our young people.'

West Middlesex Hospital in Isleworth used an agency in India for 234,000 letters; The Whittington Hospital, in Archway, did so for 90,000; Kingston Hospital in Surrey for 17,000; and Epsom & St Helier, also in Surrey, for 11,000.

In the Commons, former health secretary Andrew Lansley revealed Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge outsourced letters to India but changed its mind after 'seeing the quality of service that could be delivered here'.

Doctors dictate letters into digital recorders to produce an audio file. This is emailed to India and transcribed by a typist. The written version is emailed back to the NHS for finishing, printing and posting.

A spokesman for Great Ormond Street said: 'Patients are only identifiable by hospital number.'

Real names are added to the document just before posting.

A spokesman for Kingston Hospital said: 'The sound file and resulting Word file are encrypted.'

And a spokesman for West Middlesex said: 'Almost every outpatient attendance will have a letter dictated out in this way.'

The first NHS data was sent abroad in 2006 when pilot schemes first started. Since then, NHS offshore transcription services have rapidly expanded.

The risks of transferring data overseas were highlighted in 2009 when undercover reporters for a TV programme were able to buy health records from a private London hospital, which had been processed in India. The sellers said they had access to thousands of British medical records.