‘pathfinders’ announced – but what don’t we know?

On 7 October, NHS England announced the four areas in which the ‘pathfinders’ (pilots) will go ahead. They are:

The announcement does not say which individual GP practices will be involved, and provides no actual date for when the pathfinders will start.

At this point we still don’t know exactly what GPs and patients in pathfinder practices will be told – or even if every patient will be written to directly with a form. NHS England says practices will send “individual letters, emails or texts” to patients, but that these are amongst “a variety of communications” that will be tested. A text notification is hardly better than a junk mail leaflet.

There are other significant unresolved issues:

  1. Given the widespread confusion between – which is for ‘secondary use’ only, i.e. purposes other than the direct care of the patient – and the Summary Care Record (SCR), will people who were confused between SCR, which may be used in direct care, and, which will not, be made very clear about their existing consent settings?
  2. What will patients who opted out in January or February, or since, be told? Will NHS England require any patients to visit their GP practice to opt out? Will an online opt out be provided?
  3. Patients who opt out should have this respected by the Health and Social Care Information Centre (i.e. no data will be extracted from their GP record) but when will the opt out – currently the gift of the Secretary of State – be put on a statutory basis?
  4. The Government claims to have added legal protections but when will the Care Act Regulations detailing crucial definitions such as use “for the promotion of health” and sanctions for misuse be laid before Parliament?
  5. Who have the Department of Health consulted on the Care Act Regulations, to be implemented by HSCIC and the Health Research Authority, which are the basis for NHS England’s assurances to patients?
  6. Claims to rule out “solely commercial” use look like a loophole; will any company which gets data from the HSCIC still be able to sell it on for ‘re-use’ by third parties? Will “the promotion of health” still permit uses such as marketing?
  7. When will the new contracts and agreements be in place? Drafts on the HSCIC website still appear to permit commercial re-use and make no mention of ‘one strike and you’re out’ sanctions or access via safe settings.
  8. The planned secure data facility (‘safe setting‘) at HSCIC to hold linked GP and hospital data is not yet built. What will patients be told about the use of their data?
  9. Where will NHS patients’ individual-level data go in the longer term? Will their data ever be permitted to leave the secure data facility in any form other than publishable aggregated statistics?
  10. As NHS England doesn’t know what will be effective, what principles will be followed to correct deficiencies in communications for any particular trial? medConfidential supports managed testing of processes, but we have seen no commitments to address trials that go less well.
  11. What will patients and GPs be told about future changes to the programme?

With so many unanswered questions and no detail at all on some of the most obvious – such as “Is my practice involved?” or “When will this happen?” – patients have every right to feel concerned. Unfortunately it seems the Director of Patients and Information still hasn’t provided patients with all the information they need.