Category Archives: News

Public Health England

“I feel I guess betrayed that 19 months into my partner’s cancer battle we didn’t know about this. I think honesty is the best policy and have no problem with the info being recorded but we should have been told and that the details can be removed at the patients request as not to be made aware at some point seems deceitful”

 patient quoted on p37 of the Macmillan/CRUK report on consent

“Betrayed” and “deceitful” are not words cancer charities quote lightly, but they are right to use them.

medConfidential believes – as we do for all flows of health data – that the cancer registry should be consensual, safe and transparent. Whereas the current data handling practices of Public Health England are coercive, dangerous and dishonest.

PHE’s National Cancer Registration and Analysis Service web page today says: (emphasis added)

“Patients can ask NCRAS to remove all of their details from the cancer registry at any time. Opting out of the cancer registry won’t affect the patient’s immediate treatment at their hospital or GP practice, but there may be occasions in the future when the data that is held by NCRAS can be used to assist in their care or that of a close relative.

“If patients opt-out of the cancer registry, it may not be possible to contact individuals identified as being at risk in future, such as when an increased risk of breast cancer is identified in women treated for Hodgkin’s disease using radiotherapy.”

NHS Digital is solving this problem through medical ethics and hard work; it seems PHE has taken a Board-level decision to ignore the problem and, in effect, blackmail patients instead.

There can be good reasons to override dissent – many of them related to public health. We have asked PHE for a list of the reasons it thinks it needs to routinely ignore the wishes of cancer patients. That list has never been provided, and PHE has published no detailed justification for its demand for data. Scrutiny of what the data is used for shows its existing arguments to be “thin” at best.

The NHS does direct care, Public Health England does not – and PHE is not set up to keep data for both direct care and secondary uses. As a result, to maintain its turf, it has resorted to threatening patients and their families with reduced treatment for cancer both online and in printed literature. We understand “the Director” has called people who opted out, in person, to “encourage” them to rescind their request.

While PHE admits that 150 people have opted out of the registry, it is unclear whether these patients took at face value PHE’s public statements about this not affecting their care, or whether they fully understood any contradictory statements made in private .

This is why direct care and secondary uses must be kept separate – there are sometimes good reasons to have additional copies of data. This is one of them.

The problems of PHE are, however, far wider than just those regarding the cancer registry. While the current review terms are correctly narrowly defined, the solutions may have more general applicability by NHS Digital.

Who is responsible for this mess?

While actual data release decisions remain unpublished, PHE assures us that there is a “reporting line”.

The data release process is apparently managed and supported by an Office of Data Release, decisions are made by the Information Asset Owner, overseen by a Data Release Assurance Board, which does no assurance and which is both chaired by the Chief Knowledge Officer, and supposedly “overseen” by PHE’s Board… via the Chief Knowledge Officer.

While this may – at a glance – seem roughly similar to an HSCIC process, let us add some names to these various posts. For the cancer registry, every single one of those roles is held by the same person: Professor John Newton.

It is clear that PHE has a serious data governance problem.

PHE remains in denial

PHE’s annual report claims (page 119) it has done a “Partridge Review”, as HSCIC did in 2014. However, while the HSCIC process was a model of transparency – it was public, conducted by independent analysts overseen by a HSCIC non-executive board member (Sir Nick Partridge, hence the name) and its outputs were clear and contained both an acceptance of problems and suggested steps to remedy them – by contrast, PHE has chosen to keep its review secret.

It has chosen to hide the process of reform from the public, and chosen to refuse to acknowledge any form of critique. The review was conducted by an in-house consultant, and was delivered to the Information Asset Owner (Professor John Newton), not the Board (on which he sits). PHE has refused FOI requests for that review, and won’t talk publicly about even the topics of the 4 areas of “significant concern”.

This is not a process in which the public can have any confidence at all.  Indeed, it gives every impression of a cover-up by those complicit in a culture of failed priorities. And, as such, through the considered decisions of PHE and decision makers, the vitally important cancer registry (and other datasets) remain one small misstep from a collapse of public confidence.

Implementing dissent

While patients have the legal right to opt out of the cancer registry, as part of its move to NHS Digital, it should come under the broader Caldicott Consent Choice.

As there are direct care purposes for which the registry is used, a separate system for those purposes should be maintained by NHS Digital. As a result, where there is a clear and pressing need to use 100% of the cancer registry, rather than the 98% who have not dissented from processing, then approval can be sought from the Confidentiality Advisory Group at the HRA, using the powers CAG acquired under the Care Act 2014. That may simply be the validation of marginal outputs from the 98% dataset, and would be a very specific question (since it would only be confirmation of the output of a research process).

However, the Cancer Registry is currently releasing details of cancer patients to private contractors for purposes that NHS Digital would not have approved itself, or which would have had to have opt outs honoured. These requests are excluded from the PHE Data Release Register. The cancer registry is therefore a ‘back door’ leak of identifiable data about the patients and their cancers.

Given the role the new chair of DAAG played in creating the above cancer registry consent fiasco, continued lobbying to “use my data”, and his other responsibilities and funding, it would seem the current DAAG/IGARD chair is demonstrably unfit to override dissent for the cancer registry.

Demonstrate to patients who has used the data, and why, and what we learnt

The demand for “more data” is endless, and providing more data will not solve that problem – all we see is more demands for more data. Will doing the same thing over and over again generate a different result?

Showing patients what was said to them, and what happened next, will hopefully focus minds away from hyperbole, improve the quality of layperson explanations of projects, and show what works for better outcomes, and what does not.

The cancer registry is a vital resource, but it should be accountable to the very patients whose data is within it, ensuring that data is used properly, and not used wrongly. Currently, those who release the data are not accountable even inside PHE, and keep their decisions secret from the public.

The details matter

As with the failure to implement type-2 opt outs properly for hospital data, and with PHE’s actions at any step of this process, misleading the public has consequences for public trust and public confidence.

It is entirely possible to have a consensual, safe and transparent cancer registry, delivering benefits to patients who wish their data used legitimately. We must and will move away from a coercive, dangerous and dishonest model – the question is solely the manner, governance, and price of that move.

Digital Economy Bill: Part 5, Chapter 1, clause 30 and Part 5, Chapter 2 from a health data perspective

medConfidential asks Peers to:

  • Express support for Baroness Findlay’s amendment on Part 5 (NC213A-D)
  • Express support for either amendment to Part 5 Chapter 2 (Clause 39)
  • Oppose current Clause 30 of Part 5 in Committee and on Report

We attach a briefing, with a more detailed consideration of these points, but in summary:

In 2009, the then Government removed clause 30’s direct predecessor – clause 152 of the Coroners and Justice Bill – because the single safeguard offered then was ineffective. Bringing that back, this Government has not only excluded important aspects of Parliamentary scrutiny, it is trying to introduce “almost untrammeled powers” (para 21), that would “very significantly broaden the scope for the sharing of information” (para 4) without transparency, and with barely any accountability. The policy intent is clear:

“the data-related work will be part of wider reforms set out in the Digital Economy Bill. [GDS Director General Kevin] Cunnington said as an example, that both DWP and the NHS have large databases of citizen records, and that “we really need to be able to match those”. (interview)

While there is a  broad prohibition on the use of data from health and social care for research further down on the face of this Bill, in Chapter 5, the approach taken in clause 30 is very different, and contains no such prohibition. Regulations (currently draft) published under clause 36 simply omit the Secretary of State for Health from the list of Ministers, thereby excluding NHS bodies but not copies of health data others require to be provided. This is another fatal flaw in clause 30.

medConfidential is deeply concerned that Chapter 2 of Part 5 contains no safeguards against bulk copying. We accept the case for a power to disclose civil registration information on an individual consented basis – a citizen should be able to request the registrar informs other bodies of the registration – but, just as clause 30 contains insufficient safeguards and is designed to enable bulk copying, so is Chapter 2. One of the amendments laid to Part 5 Chapter 2 should be accepted.

Governments have had since 2009 to solve the problems that clause 30 not only leaves unaddressed, but exacerbates. The Government should either heavily amend Clause 30 at Report stage, or ensure it is removed before Third Reading. This clause is a breeding ground for disaster and a further collapse in public trust, and it simply doesn’t have to happen.

While medConfidential is open to legislation that treats sensitive and confidential personal data in a consensual, safe and transparent manner, this legislation does not. Despite more than 2 years of conversations about accessing data through systems that respect citizens and departments (ie data subjects and data controllers) and the promises they make to each other; Cabinet Office instead took a clause from 2009 off the shelf, and has been actively misleading about the process.

Briefing for Committee stage

Your hospital data is still being sold – and here’s why it matters

Every flow of health data should be consensual, safe, and transparent. The Wellcome Trust found that up to 39% of people would have concerns about the use of their hospital data (page 92). Those concerns are well founded, and the safeguards currently insufficient.

NHS Digital says that the “pseudonymised Hospital Episode Statistics” of each man, woman and child in the country are not “personal confidential information” and so your opt outs don’t apply.  But the Hospital Episode Statistics are not “statistics” in any normal sense. They are raw data; the medical history of every hospital patient in England, linked by an individual identifier (the pseudonym), over the last 28 years. This article is an explanation of what that means, and why it is important.

To understand the risk that NHS Digital’s decision puts you in, it is necessary to see how your medical records are collected, and what can be done with them when they have been collated.

A proper analogy is not to your credit card number, which can easily be fixed by your bank if compromised; but the publication of your entire transaction history. Your entire medical history cannot be anonymised, is deeply private, and is identifiable.


How do your treatments get processed?

Each hospital event creates a record in a database. Some large treatments create a single record (e.g. hip replacement); some smaller routine events create multiple records (e.g. test results).

The individual event may be recorded using a code, but the description of what each code means is readable online. As Google DeepMind asserted, this data is sufficient to build a hospital records system (we argued that they shouldn’t have; we agreed it was possible).

As for how millions of those single events get put together, here’s a screenshot of the commercial product “HALO Patient Analyser”, sold by a company called OmegaSolver, which uses the linking identifier (the pseudonym) to do just that:

OmegaSolver HALO Patient Analyser screengrab


The identifier links your records, and that’s the problem.

While a stolen credit card number might sell online for $1, a stolen medical history goes for more like $100.

The loss of a medical record is very different to losing a credit card. If your credit card is stolen, your bank can make you financially whole again, and give you a new credit card. A month later, the implications are minimal, and your credit history is clear. But if someone gets hold of information about your medical history, that knowledge cannot be cancelled and replaced – you can’t change the dates of birth of your children, and denial of a medical event can have serious health implications.

The Department of Health is correct that the identifier used to link all of an individual patient’s data together – the pseudonym, which you could equate to a credit card number – is effectively “unbreakable”, in the sense that it won’t reveal the NHS number from which it is derived. No one credible has ever argued otherwise. You cannot readily identify someone from their credit card number.

But that misses the point that there are plenty of ways to identify an individual other than their NHS number.  This is not a new point, but it has never been addressed by NHS Digital or the Department of Health. In fact, they repeatedly ignore it. It was medConfidential that redacted the dates from the graphic above, not the company who published it on their website.

Whenever we talk to NHS Digital or the Department of Health, they repeatedly argue their use of pseudonyms as linking identifiers keeps medical information safe because they hide one of the most obvious ways to identify someone, i.e. their NHS number. We don’t disagree, and we agree that making the pseudonym as unbreakable as possible is a good idea. But what this utterly fails to address is that it is the very use of linking identifiers that makes it possible to retrieve a person’s entire hospital history from a single event that can be identified.

Focussing narrowly on the risk that the linking identifier could be “cracked” to reveal someone’s NHS number misses the far more serious risk that if any one of the events using that pseudonym is identified, the pseudonym itself is the key to reading all the other events – precisely as it is designed to be. That multiple events are linked by the same pseudonym introduces the risk that someone could be identified by patterns of events as well as details of one single event.

In the same way that you cannot guess someone’s identity from their phone number alone, you won’t be able to guess someone’s identity from their linking identifier. But just as in reading your partner’s phone bill, you could probably figure out who some of the numbers are from knowledge of the person, such as call patterns and timings. And once you’ve identified someone’s number, you can then look at other calls that were made…

Hospital Episodes Statistics (HES) provides all that sort of information – and allows the same inferences – for the medical history of any patient who has been treated in an NHS hospital, about whom you know some information. Information that may be readily accessible online, from public records or things people broadcast themselves on social media.

In the event of an accident that leads to HES being ‘published’, this is what NHS Digital says “could happen” – allowing people who know, or decide to find out something about you, to identify your medical history. This is how, in the event that one thing goes wrong, the dominoes destroy your medical privacy and (not coincidentally) the medical privacy of those directly connected with you.

Returning to the example of the phone bill – from a call history, you could infer your partner is having an affair, without knowing any details beyond what’s itemised on the phone bill.

Linking identifiers are necessary to make medical information useful for all sorts of purposes but, for reasons that should now be obvious, they cannot be made safe. That is why safe settings and opt outs are vital to delivering usable data with public confidence.


With 1.5 billion events to search through, what does this mean in practice?

Health events, or accidents, can happen to anyone, and the risk of most people being individually targeted by someone unknown is generally low – a risk the majority may be prepared to take for the benefit of science, given safeguards. But while it may be fair to ask people to make this tradeoff, it is neither fair nor safe to require them to make it.

As an exercise, look in your local newspaper (or the news section of the website that used to be your local newspaper) and see what stories involve a person being treated in hospital. What details are given for them? Why were they there?  Have you, or has anyone you know, been in a similar situation?

The annex to the Partridge Review gives one good example, but here are several others:

  • Every seven minutes, someone has a heart attack. This is 205 heart attacks per day, spread across 235 A&E departments. If you know the date of someone’s heart attack (not something normally kept secret), the hospital they went to, and maybe something else about them, using the Hospital Episode Statistics, their entire history would be identifiable just out of sheer averages.
  • If a woman has three children, that is 3 identifiable dates on which some medical events occurred (most likely) in a hospital. Running the numbers on births per day, 3 dates will give you a unique identifier for the person you know. Are your children’s birthdays secret?
  • If misfortune befalls someone, and information ends up in the public domain due to an incident that affects their health, (e.g. a serious traffic accident), or a person who is in the public eye, or with a public profile who publicly thanks the NHS for recent care (twitter), how many events of that kind happen to that kind of person per day? The numbers are low, and the risk is very high.

More information simply makes things more certain, and you can exclude coincidences based on other information – heart attacks aren’t evenly distributed round the country, for example, and each event contains other information. Even if you don’t know which of several heart attack patients was the person you know, it’s likely that you have some other information about their person, their location, their medical history, or other events that can be used to exclude the false matches.

It only takes one incident to unlock your entire hospital history. All that protects those incidents is a contract with the recipients of HES to say they will not screw up, and the existence of that contract is accepted by the Information Commissioner’s Office as being compliant with its “anonymisation code of practice”, because the data is defined as being “anonymous in context”.

This may or may not be true, but relying on hundreds of companies never to screw up is unwise – we know they do.

All this goes to explain why the Secretary of State promised that those who are not reassured could opt out:


NHS England will go fishing in a “Data Lake”, but say “let them eat APIs” to doctors

An “emerging target architecture” from NHS England aims to direct all NHS patient data into a new “national data lake” (page 14). This involves taking genomic, GP, and other health data for direct care, and then going fishing in that dataset for commissioning purposes, while keeping such actions secret from the patients whose data they access.

The inclusion of the data lake and claims to be ‘direct care’ show NHS England has no faith that the tools they propose to doctors will work. The figleaf of “localisation” is undermined by the “national” “data lake”, and it seems unlikely that DH and NHS England will cease meddling if a local area decides not to to rifle through patient records.

NHS England’s approach does not fix any problems that exist: there is no analysis that should be done, that this model will allow, that cannot be done now if someone cared to do it. The approach does however do away with patient privacy, safeguards and oversight, and allow nefarious access that is currently prohibited. This model does nothing to solve the actual problem, which is the need for more analysis. There is already an excess of data that no one is looking at, this simply creates more data. And no matter how much data there is, “more data” will remain an analyst’s desire. Patients, and the clinicians who treat them, don’t have such luxuries.

Conflating direct care and secondary uses will cause pain throughout the NHS for as long as it persists the legacy of the thinking behind


Direct care?

For direct care, the idea of patient-visible, audited, “near real time” access to records held elsewhere is not novel nor necessarily problematic in principle (the details often fall short).

The Lefroy Act from 2015 requires hospitals to use the NHS number to identify patients, which makes data easy to link. The use of near-real-time access where there is a clinical need is not necessarily a problem everywhere, but there are clearly some areas where very great care is needed, and this document contains none at all.

There are benefits to using FHIR APIs (or equivalent) as the definition of a “paperless” NHS (currently conveniently undefined). But this “target architecture” is not about that (and notably doesn’t say that). The APIs proposed can help patients, but do not require new data pools; the “national data lake” assumes they do not, and is included to allow fishing expeditions by NHS England itself and their customers – an “NHS England datamart”.

NHS England’s desire for unlimited access to data for direct care is to get unlimited access for other purposes. The document claims that “privacy by design” is important, but doesn’t go beyond words and completely ignores privacy from their worldview.

Where is the transparency?

Access to records to provide direct care is valid – but at the scale of the entire NHS, how will a patient know whether their records have been accessed by someone on the other side of the country? The system says nothing about transparency to patients.

While such an architecture can do good, it can also be abused, and the worldview of NHS England offers no potential for dissent.

Open Data and dashboards on current status are necessary for transparency in the NHS. However, paragraph 3.29.3 suggests that open data can be recombined into a patient record, which suggests something has gone very wrong in the “understanding” behind this document.

NHS England will go fishing in the genetic data lake

Because all patients’ records will be included in the data lake, NHS England will then be able to extract anything for which it can provide a plausible justification. But, as the Care.Data Expert Reference Group showed, anything can be justified if you use the right words and no one asks questions, e.g. “national data lake” and “privacy by design”

The existence of a data lake means people will go fishing. You can put up “no fishing” signs, but we all know how that plays out with people who have good intentions but priorities that undermine the larger goals.

The paper does not talk about genomic data, but Genomics England (GEL) is envisaged as an inflow. Was this a deliberate choice?

This free-for-all stands in comparison to the transparency of the current NHS Digital processes. We may fundamentally disagree with some of those decisions, but there is transparency on what decision was made and why.


The idea of a “datamart” is the clear reappearance of the principle of taking all the data from patients and clinicians, and selling it to anyone who might offer a few beans to get the detailed medical histories of patients.

The conflation of direct care and (dissentable) secondary uses now looks less accidental, and more like an end state goal, for which ignoring patient opt outs was a necessary means to an end.

There must continue to be rigorous and transparent processes for accessing patient level data – and that should include transparency to patients of which organisations have accessed their data. APIs may help care, but they also help those with other intents.

This proposal also does nothing to reduce the admin overhead of the NHS billing bureaucracy, nor does it reduce the requirement for identifiable information to be shown to accountants at multiple NHS bodies, simply because they don’t trust each other. This “national data bus” architecture could address that problem, but NHS England have chosen not to care about reducing the burden on others.

There should be no third party access protocols – statistics should be published, or data to solve a specific problem should be available to appropriate analysts within a safe setting, whose questions have received appropriate review, and who have the data appropriate to answer them, and who publish their results.

Drug companies are prevented from changing the questions they ask when they know what the results of their trials are. We shouldn’t allow CQC to pretend they never asked a question, purely because they don’t like the answer they got. Analysis of the data may lead to new questions; but it should never lead the original question not being answered. And all questions asked of the data should be published.


The future of (Fax) Machines

There is still no clarity on what will replace the fax machine for one clinician sending information along a care pathway to a department in another organisation. The desire to abolish fax machines isn’t unwise, but they serve a clinical purpose that email demonstrably doesn’t resolve.

Wither Summary Care Record?

The Summary Care Record could perform many of the direct care features; had NHS England not decided upon an “all or nothing” approach to having a SCR.  Had the enhancements to Summary Care Records been done on an iterative and consented basis, it would have been simpler to widen SCR to the new areas proposed. But NHS England, with the bureaucratic arrogance and technical mediocrity that pervades this proposal, simply insisted on an all or nothing approach to the enhanced SCR. And as such, it insists on all patient data being included in a data lake, as the access to data of last resort for clinicians.


Some of the proposals in this document clearly have merit, but when claims are made for “privacy by design” alongside such a fundamentally misconceived and diametrically opposed notion as a “national data lake”, the vision articulated is shown to be incoherent at best. Prioritising a data copying exercise over actual care repeats exactly the same errors in thinking that set on its path to failure. And, published just weeks after it emerged that patients’ objections to their data being used for purposes beyond their care are being ignored, this looks even more like a deliberate attempt to ignore that there are (and always will be) valid objections. Ignoring the past in this way puts at risk access to the data of those who would be happy for their medical records to be used, given sufficient safeguards and transparency. Unfortunately, a data lake can never meet those requirements.

The “emerging target architecture” document is here, and NHS England are taking comments until the end of the week…

Your Records in Use – Where and When… — Political will (or wont) for telling you how your data has been used.

The NHS changes greatly over time, but there are few “big bang” changes overnight, that happen without involving the patient. Your health context can change in the course of a single consultation, but the system does not change – only how you interact with it. Press releases may suggest that the NHS is rushing towards genomics and AI, but it’s much more a slow stroll.

The publication of Caldicott 3 called for an “informed” “continuing conversation” about health data. We agree – the best way for a patient to understand how their data may be used next month, is to be able to see how it was used last month. But if there are caveats that remain hidden from the public, a dishonest entry is worse than no entry.

Every patient has a personal lived experience of the NHS, and using that as the starting point for accountability of data use is vital. Data usage reports can give a patient the information about how data is used, in a context that directly relates to their personal experience of the NHS. Some of that they were involved in, and some of it is the system doing its thing and hoping no one notices.


Databases: poor and past?

Why are some patients being told to bring their passport to receive care, even though the NHS was there when they were born?

Databases that have benefits will receive public support for doing what they were supposed to do, but there is a widespread recognition that some past data choices by the NHS may have not been wise.

Whether that legacy will be repaired, or left to fester, is now up to the Department of Health, when they respond to the Caldicott Review. The Review left a number of hard questions unanswered, including the abuse of some patients that has been described as tantamount to “blackmail”. was just one of those. There are others that have hidden under a rock for some time, and followed as it it were a guidebook.

The databases proliferate, there is almost no evidence for whether they are useful. Is the energy spent on them worthwhile? Is there a better way of delivering the goals they were designed to meet? There is an opportunity cost to doing anything…

There are many good reasons to use data, but just because a data collection has existed for decades, doesn’t mean it’s still the best way to deliver on the goals. Continued secrecy about the effectiveness of some data projects suggests that perhaps the claims of benefits are overblown, and are not supported by the evidence of what actually happened.

A continuing conversations requires ongoing evidence of reality, not political hyperbole.


Will patients be shown the benefits?

Will patients be provided with the evidence to show how their wishes have been implemented? What was the outcome of projects where their data was included?

What was the outcome of the “necessary” projects where dissent was ignored?

Will the Caldicott Consent Choice ignore the choices patients were previously offered?

In 2016, NHS Digital have made the final preparatory steps to telling patients how their data is used, which was firstly, keeping track (a side effect of beginning to honor objections), but they also now publish a detailed data release register – with sufficient detail for you to work out where some of your data went and why. Such a register allows for independent scrutiny of any data flow, and is a necessary prerequisite to a data usage report.

It does not tell an individual whether their data was used, nor what the knowledge generated was (e.g. see notices tab), but it is the key step. And while two thirds of data sold by NHS Digital does not honour your opt out, Public Health England sneak a copy of NHS data, refuse to honour objections, and hide those actions from their data release register. (As of December 2016, some administrators pretend that there was no opt out offered from “anonymised” hospital data… here’s the video from Parliament).


Digital, Deepmind, and beyond

How AI will support care is a choice for the future, but if there is going to be any move towards that world (and there already is), the transparency of all digital services must be fundamentally, inviolable, and clear — it can include AI, but can’t include dodgy caveats.

If there is any secrecy about how patient data is used, NHS institutions may hope to be given the benefit of the doubt for secrecy, Google not so much. If there is secrecy for the NHS organisations, companies will try and sneak in too.

Similarly, if patients are to be offered digital services that they can use without fear, there must be an accountability mechanism for when those services were accessed, that they can view when they wish. Otherwise, the lowest form of digital predators will descend on health services like it’s feeding time. It doesn’t have to happen – unless there is a political decision that mistakes can be covered up.

When companies put out a press release, we often get called for comment and insight  on what is actually going on. That’s a journalist’s job, and ours, because some good intentions come with too high a price.

Will the mistakes of the past begin to be rectified, creating the consensual, safe, and transparent basis for the (digital) health service of the future?


Demonstrations of Delivery on promises

There will always be a demand to do more with data – but any framework has to respect that some things will not be permitted.

As Caldicott 3 recognised, telling patients how their data has been used is necessary for public confidence in the handling of data. If there is to be confidence in the system, and allowing data to be used to its full potential, then there should be a recognition that when that use is objected to by an individual, then that objection is respected.

We focus on health data, but this applies across the public sector, where there is a desire to make data great again in 2017…


Opt-out Process Update – December 2016

You have the right to opt out (dissent) from your medical history being used for purposes beyond your direct care. There are many legal routes for you to do this.

Unfortunately, easiest route, which 1.2 million people have taken up, is under threat. We recommend everyone join our newsletter to get updated information as things continue to evolve.

If you have given an opt out form to your GP before, and are interested, our best advice remains to wait until things are clearer. If you haven’t opted out yet but now wish to, the form in step 1 may suffice.

If you are concerned, you can take all 3 steps below at any time.


1. Use our opt out form in the first instance, and give a copy to your GP receptionist. This form goes to your GP.

That should have been all it would take, if the opt out promise from Jeremy Hunt was being kept, and being seen to be kept, but at this time we believe they are not. As such, there are 2 more steps:

Update: 28/12/16: NHS Digital are currently disputing that the following steps are valid. We will have an update in mid-January following additional work.

2. If you do not wish your hospital data sold/released, you may now need to send a letter to the Health and Social Care Information Centre, (also known as NHS Digital), which is part of the Department of Health. Use this template letter for HSCIC and post to the address at the top of that letter.

Additionally, our current best assessment is that this is likely also necessary for complete protection:

3. If you do not wish your data released by Public Health England, (for their various purposes which are non-statutory) you should send them a similar letter. Despite also being part of the Department of Health, PHE’s long term refusal to honour the Secretary of State’s promise to you is causing us deep concern. Use this template for PHE and post to the address at the top of that letter.

Why two similar letters to different bits of the Department of Health when you had already told your GP and your GP has acted on your wishes? Someone should ask Jeremy Hunt that question. It was his offer of an opt out to patients that he has now effectively withdrawn. He can put it back again, and do this properly, simply by saying so.

Does the opt out form in step 1 work? It protects your GP data, and it should protect your hospital data, but there are currently questions over that. You should be able to just use the form in step 1, and you may have already done so..

Steps 2 and 3 are currently believed to be necessary because of hidden changes in definitions by the Department of Health. They can deliver on their promise and make those steps unnecessary.

Jeremy Hunt has changed his mind

Welcome to another newsletter from medConfidential.

Jeremy Hunt changed his mind and is still selling your medical records

If you opted out of your hospital records being sold, Jeremy Hunt has changed his mind about your choice.

At the time, he said in Parliament (emphasis added):

“…this Government decided that people should be able to opt out from having their anonymised data used for the purposes of scientific research, which the previous Labour Government refused to do? When they extended the programme to out-patient data in 2003 and to A and E data in 2008, at no point did they give people the right to opt out. We have introduced that right

The right Jeremy Hunt was so publicly proud of introducing, he has secretly taken away again. He was right to give it you – his election manifesto promised it would be there.

Over 1.2 million people, just like you, opted out of their hospital records being sold. The opt out has begun to work, but NHS confirms hospital records are still being sold.

The opt out process you followed in 2014 was the easiest way to opt out, but was not the only way. It was what the Government said would work. They have now changed their minds. We complained to the ICO, and they agreed with the Government.

As a result, we will have more details on what you can do to protect yourself in the new year. The Government had to perform a pirouette to pull this off, and may still have fallen flat on their face.

For now, you may wish to write to your MP and ask about this change. Ask your MP why the Government has gone back on its manifesto promise to let you opt out. Tell them why confidence in the privacy of your medical records matters to you.  More details of the change are on our website.

Other steps you may wish to take to protect your medical records will become clear in the new year. If you are in immediate distress, our website contains a longer route to doing so now if necessary. If that is not the case for you, we’d suggest you wait until our full response is available. There is more to come on this, and the shabby secret is now out.

Jeremy Hunt offered you a convenient route which didn’t place an undue burden on your the NHS. If you took him up on that, he should keep his word. He retracted it in secret, and it took 6 months of work to find out what had actually happened. The opt out you took up for hospital has begun to be implemented, but is not yet fully in place. The opt out of your GP data, which is a separate tick box on the form you used, is not affected. The GP opt out is working, as it has been since you handed in your form.

Where does data go?

NHS Digital publishes details of where they send data each month, and why. Now they publish detailed official spreadsheets, we turn it into simple webpages. They are at

That gives a list of which projects honoured your opt out, and which companies got data on you anyway.

Merry Christmas

2017 is looking busy. The Government will announce what it is going to do. We hope they will do the right thing and honour your opt out (even if they try to do everything else first).

We rely on donations for some of our work, and anything you wish to offer in support will be put to good use. We have some fun plans for ensuring your choice is respected, and donations help them happen.

We will still be here. The Government know we will still be here, and know we will do what we say we will do. We work to ensure that your medical records are only used in a way which is consensual, safe, and transparent.

You can help make that happen.

We wish you and your loved ones a Merry Christmas, and we’ll have more in the New Year. The next newsletter will have better news than this one. We hope.

Thanks for helping

Best wishes, for a Merry Christmas, and a consensual, safe, and transparent New Year.

From Phil, Sam, and all at MedConfidential.

Briefing for the Digital Economy Bill – House of Lords 2nd Reading

Our 3 page briefing is here.


Given the obstinacy of the Cabinet Office, Part 5 of this Bill has been offered on a take or leave it basis to Parliament.  If it is not improved at Committee stage, we suggest you leave it.

A major hospital in London has a deal with Google to produce an app to tell doctors which patients are in the most urgent need. This is a good thing. But to produce it, Google insisted on having a copy of main dataset covering every patient in the hospital, which is only available up until the end of the previous calendar month.  The appropriate way to get the information needed, was to get up to the minute information on the patient whose details they were going to display. However, Google wanted all the data, and insisted on it if the hospital wanted to work with them.

It’s not the creation or production of a pretty app that’s the problem – it’s the demand for excessive data in return for using the app. It’s entirely rational for the hospital to accept the app as it may lead to marginally better care for their patients; but the price is being paid in their patients’ data. The Bill applies this principle across Government: third parties want the benefits of having the data, because this Bill does not require any protections.

The Minister was asked a simple question about safeguards: “Could you explain where they are and what they look like? and no answer – because there are none.

Characterising Chapters 1 and 2, it can be said they “will have the effect of removing all barriers to data-sharing between two or more persons, where the sharing concerns at least in part the sharing of personal data, where such sharing is necessary to achieve a policy objective…”

Unfortunately for the Government, that characterisation is quoting from the Government’s explanatory notes for s152 of the Coroners and Justice Bill (para 962). Nothing has changed in Government thinking since 2009, when the House of Lords threw out that clause.

Our 3 page explanatory briefing is here.

medConfidential statement on continued sale of hospital records

During the failed Care.Data project, NHS England and the Department of Health said “patients have a choice” about how their data is used – they could opt out if they wished.

NHS Digital, the bit of the Department of Health that sells data to companies, has gone back on the Secretary of State’s word on a critical detail, and Jeremy Hunt has given up. To the Information Commissioner, they now say: there is no choice about whether your hospital data is sold. NHS Digital admit and demonstrate that it continues to be sold.

The opt out was the gift of the Secretary of State, and he has taken part of it away again. Merry Christmas everyone.

On that basis, other legal options remain open to patients. This is not the end, but it is the end of the beginning.

The opt out has begun to be implemented – it does do some things – but the main purpose of opting out of your hospital data being sold, is that your hospital data doesn’t get sold. That is the part that continues to happen in spite of the NHS promise to you as a patient.

We are obviously disappointed that Jeremy Hunt has chosen to go back on his word, and continue selling the nation’s private hospital history to anyone who fills in a form correctly, after he offered patients a choice to opt out of that.

The ICO has ruled that it was the Secretary of State’s choice, and he was entitled to make it. This does not affect rights available to patients under the Data Protection Act.

If patients are concerned, we suggest they join our newsletter at, and we will provide a detailed update shortly – it is likely to involve a trip to the post box.

We will have a more detailed analysis of the contradictory parts of the ICO response in due course.


Notes to Editors

    1. was the extension of GP data to link it with Hospital data, and continue the practices used in ongoing releases of hospital data. The Government was very clear that if patients didn’t want their hospital data used, they could opt out:
      NHS England: 
    2. NHS Digital’s convoluted policy statement is the 5th bullet point here: 
    3. For alternate approaches, we note s10 of the Data Protection Act allows a person to dissent from processing, and purposes beyond direct care are subject to legal dissent. The opt out was supposed to be the convenient way of expressing dissent; it is not the only way. 
    4. This decision is about data flows as they exist today. Looking forwards to future changes, NHS Digital argue that this implementation is entirely consistent with the future Caldicott Consent Choice under review by the Government following a public consultation. That is in the hands of the Government. 
    5. The NHS Digital Privacy Impact Assessment for the Hospital Episode Statistics shows that reidentification from this data could happen:
    6. The recipients of data releases, which includes releases containing data on patients who had opted out, can be seen here:
    7. For what patients can do about this change, see: