Patients will not be warned before your medical records go online
Some patients will not be warned before their private records are put on a controversial NHS database because confidential letters offering them the chance to opt out have gone astray, health officials admitted.
Around nine million patients are due to receive letters this month asking whether they wish to stop their medical records being transferred onto the £11 million system, but officials said the sheer scale of the project has made errors inevitable.
Patients should be notified 12 weeks before their records go live, but the NHS admitted that people scattered across three counties in the North East have not been informed because their confidential letters were sent to the wrong addresses.
The Summary Care Records system, which will eventually hold the medical details of more than 50 million patients, has been dogged by fears that the private information it stores will never be safe from hackers and data losses.
Deepa Shah of NHS Connecting for Health, which manages the database, said: “It’s very difficult not to make mistakes when you are mailing nine million people. It’s a shame that a handful of letters have gone missing, but it would be very difficult for us to monitor ever single one.”
Patients in Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk have received letters addressed to the wrong person in the same envelope as their own letter.
NHS Connecting for Health claimed the error was confined to the North East, but inside sources said letters had also gone missing across Trafford in the North West.
The extent of the error, which occurred when staff began stuffing envelopes manually after machinery broke down, is unknown, but 25 cases of duplicate letters have already been reported.
Officials at the Central Office for Information, which manages Government mail-outs, said they would inform patients whose letters had been sent to the wrong address of the mistake.
But they admitted that none of at least 25 cases discovered by The Daily Telegraph had been reported directly to them, raising fears that many more letters may have gone astray without officials realising.
Lateral Group, the private company contracted by the Central Office for Information to carry out the mail-out, did not respond to questions about the number of letters that had been lost. A spokeswoman for the NHS said the company had taken the error “very seriously”.
At present 1.29 million people have had their details placed on the system and a further 8.9 million records are due to be added by June. By the end of next year, the NHS hopes to have more than 50 million uploaded.
The system is designed to link about 30,000 GPs to 300 hospitals, providing access to an online appointments system and electronic prescriptions.
The labour Government says patients would be able to access their own records online and will be asked before health care staff view their information.
But The Daily Telegraph disclosed on Wednesday that the British Medical Association had written to ministers to give warning that records are being placed on the database without patients’ knowledge or consent.
The chairman of the Association called for the project to be suspended amid claims that the Government is rushing it through before the Conservatives have a chance to cancel it if they win the General Election.
Hamish Meldrum wrote: “The breakneck speed with which this programme is being implemented is of huge concern.
“Patients’ right to opt out is crucial, and it is extremely alarming that records are apparently being created without them being aware of it.”
He warned that people were not receiving their letters because they were being sent to the wrong addresses and many patients who have received them are unsure of what they mean.
Some patients have also complained of being made to answer a series of personal questions before being allowed to opt out of having their confidential records placed on the database.
Staff on the Summary Care Records helpline are told to ask a person’s name, address, date of birth, ethnic group and whether they work for the NHS before agreeing to send them an opt-out form.
Chris Mannering, a 57-year-old housewife from Sussex, said: “It’s intimidating when you’re told that all you have to do is ring the number and ask for a form, and in fact you are interrogated. It made me very cross.”
Dr Katherine Murphy, director of the Patients’ Association, said: “There is a real danger that an initiative that will benefit patients is going to turn into the usual complete mess. Many patients are rightly concerned about their confidentiality and consent and if there is even the slightest impression that this is being pushed through it will generate a feeling of mistrust.
“People who might otherwise have consented could end up opting out which would be the last thing everybody wants.”
A spokeswoman for the Central Office for Information said: “As soon as we became aware [of the mistake] the contractor acted promptly to put in place additional quality checks to safeguard against a repeat of the issue. We remain committed to patient confidentiality and the local NHS will write to those affected to apologise and provide reassurance.”
She added that the letters do not themselves contain any confidential medical information, although they do contain names, addresses and details of the GP surgeries attended by the individuals concerned.