Ilford GP criticises NHS patient data sharing plans

Dr Najib Seedat, a partner at Ilford Medical Centre, sitting at a desk in front of a computer

Dr Najib Seedat, a partner at Ilford Medical Centre, said that patients’ data should only be uploaded if they actively opt-in. - Credit: Dr Najib Seedat

An Ilford GP has hit out at plans to upload NHS patient data onto a central database which would be available to academic and commercial third parties. 

The proposals, known as the General Practice Data for Planning and Research, would see the medical histories of more than 55 million patients placed on NHS England servers, unless they opt out before it is introduced. 

The government this week announced that the system’s introduction, originally slated for July 1, would be pushed back to September 1.

The delay came after condemnation over the shortness of the period during which patients could opt out. 

Critics say that privacy concerns remain about sharing the data, which includes anonymised mental and sexual health information, along with criminal records. 

“People tell you things that they don't tell to anyone else in the world,” said Najib Seedat, a partner at Ilford Medical Centre. 

Dr Seedat, who has worked as a GP in Redbridge for 21 years, said that the delay was a “step in the right direction” but criticised the proposals and said that patients’ data should only be uploaded if they actively opt-in.  

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Under the new system, patients' names and exact addresses would not be collected, but other personal data – NHS numbers, postcodes, dates of birth – would be compiled and 'pseudonymised'.

This means that the data would be replaced with unique codes designed to prevent identification of individuals, although the NHS will retain the ability to unlock the data if there is a 'valid legal reason' to do so.

NHS Digital has said that pseudonymised data would only be accessible to organisations which use it for legitimate healthcare planning and research purposes.  

All requests to access GP data will be scrutinised by NHS Digital and two independent panels which include GP representatives.

Dr Seedat believed that there was little to prevent further commercialisation of the database in the future. 

He said: “For a few years nothing will happen and your data won’t get sold, but somewhere down the line it will. 

“I think it's going to come back to haunt us in the long run.” 

Simon Bolton, chief executive of NHS Digital, stressed the positive impact of data sharing: "Data saves lives and has huge potential to rapidly improve care and outcomes, as the response to the Covid-19 pandemic has shown.  

“The vaccine rollout could not have been delivered without effective use of data to ensure it reached the whole population." 

Patient data has been used to identify which treatments effectively combat coronavirus, including dexamethasone, which the NHS claims saved 22,000 lives in the UK by April 2021. 

Dr Seedat has been contacting his patients by text message to inform them of the changes and said that he had received more than 500 responses from his 14,000 patients. 

However, he said that many of his colleagues were unaware of implications of the proposals and worried that many patients would not be able to make an informed choice even with the September extension. 

“I think people are being taken advantage of and at the end of the day my job is not just to look after patients' health, I also have a responsibility for their welfare," he said.

He suggested that the government had pushed the policy through under the cover of coronavirus. 

“The speed and rapidity of all of it has taken everyone by surprise – we were caught looking the other way and suddenly it was there," he said.

Addressing the House of Commons on the delayed introduction of the programme, health minister Jo Churchill said: "We will use this time to talk to patients, doctors, health charities and others to strengthen the plan, build a trusted research environment and ensure that data is accessed securely.

"This agenda is so important, because we all know that data saves lives."