Public Health England (PHE) has made a strong statement about data sharing within the healthcare system, indicating that it runs the risk of undermining public confidence in the NHS.
The authoritative healthcare body particularly points to the pooling of personal information by NHS commissioners and healthcare providers, stating that this could have unintended and serious consequences for patients.
In a series of letters published by the Health Select Committee, PHE and the National Data Guardian (NDG) have expressed their concerns over a recent memorandum of understanding.
This agreement requires the Home Office to request non-clinical details from NHS Digital.
But PHE believes that this creates a real barrier to engagement with health services among migrant populations.
Concerns were raised after the Home Office obtained the personal details of thousands of NHS patients back in January, with the intention of addressing illegal immigration.
And further agreements between the two government organisations make it possible for the Home Office to request non-clinical details from NHS Digital, which includes personal information such as names, dates of birth and addresses.
According to Department of Health data, the Home Office made 8,127 requests for information in the first 11 months of 2016.
In defence of the policy, this led to 5,854 people being traced by immigration enforcement teams, so the strike rate could be considered rather good.
But Doctors of the World UK, that represents migrants, suggest that over 10% of patients associated with the charity have refrained from attending either doctor or hospital appointments due to fear of arrest.
A review by PHE, intended as a direct response to the Health Select Committee, suggested that the situated is currently far from ideal.
“Patients provide information to healthcare providers with explicit assurances about confidentiality and this is the basis for unfettered sharing of demographic and personal health data by patients with health systems; this has been the foundation of the public health system in the UK since the creation of the NHS.”
The review continues by confirming the assertion previously made by Doctors of the World, namely that the existing policy is damaging the healthcare of migrants.
“If patients have concerns that their personal information, even simple identifiers, could be shared with law enforcement or immigration enforcement agencies for the purposes of pursuing them for actual or alleged breaches of law or immigration rules, then this risks creating a real barrier to their engagement.”
And the review concludes that this may negatively impact on some of the most vulnerable individuals in society.
“In particular this may impact upon asylum seekers, refugees and undocumented migrants or migrant groups legally in the UK who may be distrustful of sharing personal information for fear that it could be accessed by migration enforcement to locate them or their friends and family.”
In response, a letter from the Department of Health meanwhile denies such claims, saying it had found “no evidence that this policy would deter migrants from seeking treatment,” adding that it had weighed up privacy considerations and the “competing public interest in upholding the Government’s immigration agenda”.