A vanquished ghost returns as details of distress required in NHS opt out

It seems the ugly ghosts of care.data past were alive and well at NHS Digital this Christmas.

Old style thinking, the top-down patriarchal ‘no one who uses a public service should be allowed to opt out of sharing their records. Nor can people rely on their record being anonymised,‘ that you thought was vanquished, has returned with a vengeance.

The Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, has reportedly  done a U-turn on opt out of the transfer of our medical records to third parties without consent.

That backtracks on what he said in Parliament on January 25th, 2014 on opt out of anonymous data transfers, despite the right to object in the NHS constitution [1].

So what’s the solution? If the new opt out methods aren’t working, then back to the old ones and making Section 10 requests? But it seems the Information Centre isn’t keen on making that work either.

All the data the HSCIC holds is sensitive and as such, its release risks patients’ significant harm or distress [2] so it shouldn’t be difficult to tell them to cease and desist, when it comes to data about you.

But how is NHS Digital responding to people who make the effort to write directly?

Someone who “got a very unhelpful reply” is being made to jump through hoops.

If anyone asks that their hospital data should not be used in any format and passed to third parties, that’s surely for them to decide.

Let’s take the case study of a woman who spoke to me during the whole care.data debacle who had been let down by the records system after rape. Her NHS records subsequently about her mental health care were inaccurate, and had led to her being denied the benefit of private health insurance at a new job.

Would she have to detail why selling her medical records would cause her distress? What level of detail is fair and who decides? The whole point is, you want to keep info confidential.

Should you have to state what you fear? “I have future distress, what you might do to me?” Once you lose control of data, it’s gone. Based on past planning secrecy and ideas for the future, like mashing up health data with retail loyalty cards as suggested at Strata in November 2013 [from 16:00] [2] no wonder people are sceptical. 

Given the long list of commercial companies,  charities, think tanks and others that passing out our sensitive data puts at risk and given the Information Centre’s past record, HSCIC might be grateful they have only opt out requests to deal with, and not millions of medical ethics court summonses. So far.

HSCIC / NHS Digital has extracted our identifiable records and has given them away, including for commercial product use, and continues give them away, without informing us. We’ve accepted Ministers’ statements and that a solution would be found. Two years on, patience wears thin.

“Without that external trust, we risk losing our public mandate and then cannot offer the vital insights that quality healthcare requires.”

— Sir Nick Partridge on publication of the audit report of 10% of 3,059 releases by the HSCIC between 2005-13

— Andy WIlliams said, “We want people to be certain their choices will be followed.”

Jeremy Hunt said everyone should be able to opt out of having their anonymised data used. David Cameron did too when the plan was  announced in 2012.

In 2014 the public was told there should be no more surprises. This latest response is not only a surprise but enormously disrespectful.

When you’re trying to rebuild trust, assuming that we accept that ‘is’ the aim, you can’t say one thing, and do another.  Perhaps the Department for Health doesn’t like the public answer to what the public wants from opt out, but that doesn’t make the DH view right.

Perhaps NHS Digital doesn’t want to deal with lots of individual opt out requests, that doesn’t make their refusal right.

Kingsley Manning recognised in July 2014, that the Information Centre “had made big mistakes over the last 10 years.” And there was “a once-in-a-generation chance to get it right.”

I didn’t think I’d have to move into the next one before they fix it.

The recent round of 2016 public feedback was the same as care.data 1.0. Respect nuanced opt outs and you will have all the identifiable public interest research data you want. Solutions must be better for other uses, opt out requests must be respected without distressing patients further in the process, and anonymous must mean  anonymous.

Pseudonymised data requests that go through the DARS process so that a Data Sharing Framework Contract and Data Sharing Agreement are in place are considered to be compliant with the ICO code of practice – fine, but they are not anonymous. If DARS is still giving my family’s data to Experian, Harvey Walsh, and co, despite opt out, I’ll be furious.

The [Caldicott 2] Review Panel found “that commissioners do not need dispensation from confidentiality, human rights & data protection law.

Neither do our politicians, their policies or ALBs.


[1] https://www.england.nhs.uk/ourwork/tsd/ig/ig-fair-process/further-info-gps/

“A patient can object to their confidential personal information from being disclosed out of the GP Practice and/or from being shared onwards by the HSCIC for non-direct care purposes (secondary purposes).”

[2] Minimum Mandatory Measures http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documents/information-management/cross-govt-actions.pdf p7

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