medConfidential Bulletin, 23rd July 2021

23 July 2021 — medConfidential

GP data grab; paused again, but still going ahead

If you asked NHS Digital for opt-out forms and the forms didn’t show up, or took ages to arrive, people tell us that happened a lot. You can get forms from us here.

We’d like to be able to tell you that you will have more information on the ‘GPDPR’ data scheme in the future than you have today – but, as you’ll see below, that’s not a promise the Government was willing to make.

What just happened

The GP data grab has now been paused for longer than patients were originally given to opt out. This week it has been delayed for a lot longer, almost certainly into 2022. You can read our situation report from 13th July which predicted what would happen, and what is still left to happen. But whenever the scheme restarts, there’s still no promise from Government that you’ll hear anything about it directly.

When medConfidential gave evidence in Parliament on Tuesday, the Government could have committed that you would hear something from the NHS. Instead, the Minister ducked the one remaining big question, leaving the suggestion hanging that the only way you’d hear about it is from medConfidential.

They have tried that approach twice so far – first in 2014, and now in 2021 – and it has failed both times. Not to write to everyone a third time would be a textbook example of doing the same thing over and over again, somehow expecting a different result.

In his last act before becoming mired in scandal, Matt Hancock announced that GP data would only be used in a Trusted Research Environment – we hope this is true. (Similar was said in 2014, but never delivered.) This time, however, all of the examples given were agreed to be dangerous, and all of the examples were from hospital data.

The Health and Care Bill that’s now working its way through Parliament does nothing to address this. So, through the rest of the year, there’ll be discussions about the Health and Care Bill, and probably some (late? sneaky?) amendments that affect patients’ data…

What’s next

There will no doubt be a series of sessions in ‘smoke-filled back rooms’, where there’ll be any amount of intense lobbying to water down promises to patients – which is the most likely reason the Government won’t commit now to telling you what it will do, in a letter, when it’s been done.

There is good reason to be sceptical that the promise for Trusted Research Environments (TRE) will be delivered. The “national institute for health data science” refuses to tell us how much money it has spent on its TRE attempts – largely because the only thing it has to show for those attempts appears to be the prize it awarded to its contractors. That team delivered nothing useful for researchers, but got a prize. We have no idea how many millions were wasted, but we will find out.

Many will have heard about the opioid epidemic in the US, where a Pharma company encouraged its sales teams to pay as many doctors as they could to prescribe as many painkillers as they could, disregarding any harms to patients or the public. The details of that scandal are now in a book, and the legal case was settled earlier this month – one of the outcomes being that billions of documents will be made available for public research.

One question we may therefore be able to research definitively is the effect of ‘pharmaceutical marketing’ in the US, and possibly beyond – noting that NHS Digital not only makes patients’ data available to third parties (and fourth parties too, via intermediaries) for just such purposes, but also some prescribing data, which the NHS isn’t allowed to let others analyse…

It will be interesting to see how issues like this, which have been brushed under the carpet for years, play out in coming months.

What can you do?

Keep spreading the word! The Minister wrote to GPs but, once again, no-one thought how to inform patients of what’s going on. And GP data extraction is still going to happen, albeit not in quite such a rush.

Promises have been made, but are yet to be delivered – much less be seen to be delivered – so, if people do have concerns, their best option at this point is still to opt out. If and when their concerns are addressed, they can always opt back in.

Other than that, we hope you are able to get both jabs, to enjoy the summer, and that you don’t catch and won’t spread COVID. That the politicians seem to be doing their level best to screw things up doesn’t mean we can’t all get through this, together.

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