RCGP condemns NHS Digital decision to ignore recommendations to suspend MOU with Home Office

Publication date: 07 March 2018

The Royal College of GPs has written to the Chief Executive of NHS Digital expressing that they are 'very concerned' at the organisation’s decision to continue its data-sharing agreement with the Department of Health and the Home Office – despite recommendations from the cross-party Health Select Committee to suspend it.

The Memorandum of Understanding between the three organisations permits the disclosure of NHS data to help the Home Office track those suspected of offences relating to immigration, including overstaying a visa.

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard writes that the College is concerned about the "possible impact of this on patient confidentiality" and that it is the RCGP's view that has there is "no requirement to change the current system, which enables information and records to be obtained via court order."

She continues that since news of the MOU was announced, the College has consistently said that "GPs and other health professionals have a duty to deliver care to patients, regardless of their individual circumstances. This care is provided on the mutual understanding that the information our patients share with us remains confidential. This principle is fundamental to the trust which exists between doctors and patients.

"Any process that undermines this trust will both deteriorate the doctor-patient relationship, and deter vulnerable people from seeking medical assistance when they need it.

"We recognise that the information shared as a result of the MOU is considered to be non-clinical, but any information, even names and addresses, are given by patients in good faith and with the understanding that this remains confidential."

Her letter also cites concerns regarding public health, writing that "it is crucial that vulnerable patients do not stop presenting to their GP fearing the consequence of immigration enforcement."

The College's intervention comes in the wake of correspondence between Health Select Committee Chair Dr Sarah Wollaston, a former GP, and NHS Digital recommending that the MOU be suspended until there has been a thorough review of public interest in maintaining a confidential medical service.

NHS Digital refused on the grounds that it was justified given public concern regarding immigration.

The letter also notes "increasing levels of concern from… the National Data Guardian, British Medical Association, Public Health England, and General Medical Council, about the impact of the MOU on the doctor-patient relationship, patient confidentiality, and public health."

Professor Stokes-Lampard acknowledges that it is "encouraging that the government has commissioned Public Health England to look at the impact of the MOU on public health," but that the College is "concerned that this work will not report until January 2019."

Until the outstanding issues regarding patient confidentiality and public health, the impact of the MOU this on the doctor patient relationship, the potential for this to deter vulnerable people from seeking medical assistance, and the concerns about risk to public health are resolved, the College is urging NHS Digital to take heed of the Health Select Committee's recommendation to suspend the MOU.

Further Information

RCGP Press office: 020 3188 7633/7574/7575
Out of hours: 0203 188 7659

Notes to editor

The Royal College of General Practitioners is a network of more than 52,000 family doctors working to improve care for patients. We work to encourage and maintain the highest standards of general medical practice and act as the voice of GPs on education, training, research and clinical standards.

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