Matt Hancock dismisses idea of writing to patients to tell them how to opt out of NHS data sharing

Matt Hancock today defended controversial NHS data-sharing plans, which health chiefs believe will revolutionise patient care.

The Health Secretary insisted ‘data saves lives’, as he unveiled new plans aimed at boosting patient care.

If approved, the plan would give patients access to their health records through an app. It could also allow them to manage appointments, refill medications and speak with health and care staff when needed. 

Critics fear that the data could be used for other purposes and that patients do not understand the new system.

But the Health Secretary today rejected calls to write to patients to let them know about the change, saying ‘hardly anybody writes to you these days’.

He said: ‘We have got to get healthcare and how the NHS communicates into the 21st century.’

The Health Secretary rejected calls to write to patients to let them know about plans move patient records onto an app that both they and healthcare staff can access, saying ‘hardly anybody writes to you these days’.

The Government’s new data-sharing plan follows fury over the publicity of a similar but independent scheme last month. 

NHS Digital — the body overseeing the use of data in the health service — wanted to upload GP records of all patients in England to its own central database from July 1. 

Patients had to opt out of the system — which will see data stored for up to 10 years — or see them automatically enrolled in the GPDPR database.

But following outrage that the database could harm doctor-patient relationships and that the public were not fully informed about the scheme, ministers pushed back the cut-off date for the creation of the central NHS database until September 1. 

Mr Hancock was not asked about the GP data-sharing scheme, which campaigners warned could see sensitive data shared with tech giants.

But he was grilled on Radio 4’s Today programme about the new proposals, called ‘Data Saves Lives: Reshaping health and social care with data’.  

It is part of a wider drive to digitalise the NHS, and will allow the ‘proportionate sharing of data for the purpose of supporting the health and care system’. 

The plan was published today by NHSX — a unit combining teams from Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), NHS England and NHS Improvement.

It would allow patients to use apps to access their medical information, procedures and care plans, manage appointments and order repeat prescriptions.  

The NHS said the plan will give both patients and healthcare staff better access to patient records, which will lead to better quality care

The NHS said the plan will give both patients and healthcare staff better access to patient records, which will lead to better quality care

Asked whether he should encourage trust in the scheme by writing a letter to every NHS user in the country to inform them of the ‘Data Saves Lives’ plan and ask whether they want to opt out, the Health Secretary said: ‘There are a couple of things about that, the first is that hardly anybody writes to you these days. 

‘We have the [coronavirus] vaccine programme where most people have got their invitation through text message.

‘The second thing is we absolutely need to have a proper national debate about this— it is one of the reasons I am here this morning and we’ve published this strategy.’

He insisted the data strategy will improve the use of data and improve care, research and the way the NHS operates, as well as making it more secure and protecting peoples’ privacy. 

The Health Secretary said: ‘What I want to do is make sure everybody has the opportunity to express their preference and their consent because I believe that fundamentally that your health data belongs effectively to you. 

‘It isn’t the preserve of your GP or of some company that provides the tech into the NHS.’

Mr Hancock also hailed the discovery of £5 steroid drug dexamethasone for treating seriously ill Covid patients as a success that supported plans to boost the use of data in the NHS.  

Matt Hancock said the 'vast, vast majority' of people would sign up for their data being used if there is a 'strong mission and purpose' behind the use of that data

Matt Hancock said the ‘vast, vast majority’ of people would sign up for their data being used if there is a ‘strong mission and purpose’ behind the use of that data

Mr Hancock said: ‘A million lives have been saved around the world because of that discovery, which was discovered in the NHS, not anywhere else, in the NHS. 

‘Now that is one example. A million people alive today who would have died if it was not for that high quality use of data in the NHS. So that’s what we’re trying to achieve with the proper strong safeguards.’

But campaigners hit back against the proposals.

Cori Crider, co-founder of Foxglove, a campaign group for digital rights told the BBC that the government was taking a ‘collect it all first and ask questions later’ approach with its ‘Data Saves Lives’ plan.

How to opt out of the GPDPR scheme

If you don’t want to have your GP medical records on the new database, search online and print off a ‘type 1 opt out form’ — or ask your GP for one. Return the completed form to your GP practice.

Alternatively, call NHS Digital on 0300 303 5678 between 9am and 5pm Monday to Friday and ask for one to be sent to you. (Calls to 0300 numbers cost up to 10p per minute from landlines, and up to 40p per minute from a mobile.) 

Return the form to your GP practice on or before June 23 to allow time for it to be processed before NHS Digital starts collecting the data on July 1.

If you miss this deadline, you can still opt out, but this only stops new information on your records being added to the database — it won’t erase information already there.

To opt out of having your hospital data shared, visit national-data-opt-out.

She said GPs should send a consent form to individuals, asking if they wanted to opt out of the scheme.

There are also fears that the GPDPR data could end up in the wrong hands, with Foxglove earlier this month calling on the Government to reveal exactly who will be able to access the data. 

However, in unveiling the plans today, the Department of Health sent out an array of opinions from top health chiefs who were in favour of the move.

Clare Gerada, the former boss of the Royal College of GPs, said better use of data is ‘vital’ and will be ‘transformational’ for the NHS.

And Sir John Bell, who helped develop the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, said the Data Saves Lives scheme has the potential to ‘enable new breakthroughs’.  

Minister for Innovation, Lord Bethell said: ‘The safety of the public will only be improved if the health and care system makes better use of data.

‘We have already seen how analysing patient data on maternity outcomes has improved care for mothers and babies.

‘Greater sharing of patient information across the health and care system will undoubtedly go on to drive further improvements in patient safety, ultimately saving lives.’        

Under the separate GPDPR scheme, the NHS plans to use the information for research, such as into the long-term impacts of coronavirus and developing cures for serious illnesses.

The data will be kept under strict privacy, security and confidentiality rules, NHS Digital said.

But it will be shared with companies that have ‘a clear legal basis’ for using the data, after being approved by an independent panel.  

Labour, the Royal College of GPs and the British Medical Association (BMA) all raised concerns about the plans. NHS Digital subsequently pushed back the planned cut-off date.

Mr Hancock said today: ‘I put a pause on that to work with the privacy groups to ensure we have stronger protections, and with these what are called trusted research environments, I think we will have stronger protection and higher quality research, because we put in place the most advanced modern approaches to using data.’  

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