Expanding the scope of care.data; no “back door” changes

While care.data is still on “pause”, it is clear that NHS England intends to proceed with the programme. Announcement of the ‘pathfinders’ (pilots) in between 100 and 500 GP practices, spread across up to 4 CCGs across England, is expected within the next few weeks.

medConfidential continues to insist that, unlike last time and as an absolute minimum, every patient must be written to and be given an opt out form. It remains to be seen if some practices will run an opt-in, as the BMA voted earlier this summer.

But when patients are written to, what will they be told?

One thing that may have escaped many people’s attention is that the information NHS England intends to extract from the GP records of every man, woman and child in the country is not permanently fixed. It has already been noted that the care.data ‘code set’ [2.3MB Excel spreadsheet] excludes musculoskeletal conditions – a notable absence, given these are amongst the top reasons why people visit their GP.

If care.data (or whatever replaces it) does proceed then, over time, the information it gathers will quite clearly change. This may be to do with ‘missing’ areas such as musculoskeletal conditions, or even new conditions that can be recorded – Read Codes are updated twice annually. And NHS England has already declared in its usual unsubtle fashion that it intends to include “sensitive” conditions in due course.

Setting aside for the moment the inclusion of any particular condition, what is absolutely necessary is that any and all changes to the scope of care.data must have robust and transparent oversight and governance processes, and these processes must be clear before patients are asked for their consent.

Whether patients are asked to opt in or opt out it must be made absolutely clear what data will be used, for what purposes, and the processes by which these decisions can be changed by NHS England.

An open and unambiguous change process is necessary to ensure that NHS England’s promises to patients are meaningful – “We will follow this process” – and that GPs can say to their patients, “We will ensure they do”. To this end, medConfidential has written a short paper outlining the sort of process that we feel would be appropriate.

Any such process must be straightforward and understandable and should not merely be taken on trust, but based on knowledge. Patients or doctors with any concerns should be able to read the document containing the process that NHS England has agreed to follow in advance of them accepting that promise.

If care.data is to proceed, there must be a process in which the public can have confidence – and in which the public can be seen to have confidence – for how the programme changes over the next years, or decades. It’s not just that modifications should not be sneaked through the backdoor; the process must not have a back door.