Public backs sharing patient details with immigration, says NHS

Warrington, United Kingdom - March 6, 2016: Warrington, UK - march 6, 2016: View of the NHS (National Health Service)  logo at the Springfields Medical Centre in the centre of Warrington, Cheshire.

The NHS has responded to criticism of its policy of sharing patients’ names and addresses with immigration officials, citing a survey showing that the majority of the public support it.

The House of Commons Health and Social Committee has been investigating arrangements allowing NHS Digital to share patients’ records with immigration officials.

In a report, published on Sunday, the committee said it had “serious concerns” about NHS Digital’s ability to keep secure patients’ non-clinical data, such as names and addresses.

Since January, last year a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) has been in place between the Home Office and NHS Digital, potentially allowing patients’ non-clinical data to be used to trace immigration offenders.

But the committee is concerned about the practices in the MoU, including disclosure of confidential information about people in contact with health services, and the risk that sharing patients’ addresses with other government departments will be accepted as normal practice.

It is also concerned about the effect of the MoU on public perception of the confidentiality of data supplied to the NHS.

The knowledge that information may be passed to immigration authorities could deter people from seeking treatment, it says, damaging their health, creating a hazard to public health, and increase NHS costs due to more expensive emergency treatment administered later.

Following an oral evidence session with officials and non-government figures about the practice of data sharing governed by the MoU in January, the committee has written to NHS Digital asking it to suspend its involvement.

The committee, which has been investigating the matter since last year, also asked for NHS Digital to thoroughly review the consequences of sharing addresses with the Home Office for immigration tracing purposes.

The latest report repeats the committee’s conclusion last year that NHS Digital should withdraw from the MoU until a review of the NHS Code of Confidentiality is complete.

In response, NHS Digital published a survey of 2,000 people it commissioned to gauge public opinion on the policy.

In the survey, 72% of respondents supported sharing patients’ address details with the home office to trace people suspected of an immigration crime.

The figure was higher (85%) in support of sharing patients’ names and addresses to trace an individual who has committed a serious crime.

And 70% of respondents supported sharing patients’ address details with the police to trace an individual suspected of a serious crime.

Dr Sarah Wollaston, said: “There is a clear ethical principle that address data held for the purposes of health and care should only be shared for law enforcement purposes in the case of serious crime.

"NHS Digital's decision to routinely share information with the Home Office with a lower threshold is entirely inappropriate. This behaviour calls into question NHS Digital’s ability to robustly act on behalf of patients in the event of other data sharing requests including from other government departments in the future.”

NHS Digitial's Sarah Wilkinson

Sarah Wilkinson, chief executive at NHS Digital said in a statement: “We will consider the Health Select Committee’s report carefully and will take into account any new evidence as it becomes available, but we have been through a rigorous process to assess the release of demographic data to the Home Office. This has established that there is a legal basis for the release and has assured us that it is in the public interest to share limited demographic data in very specific circumstances.”