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Sunday 24th June 2018

Data protection in the NHS

4th September 2008

The NHS is leaving worrying gaps in its methods for ensuring patient information is protected, say Sven Putnis and Andrew Bircher in the Health Service Journal.


"Prime minister Gordon Brown has said he 'profoundly regrets' the loss of 25 million child benefit records." This BBC headline appeared in November 2007.

Other alarming headlines over the past year included the government's loss of a computer file which contained the information of 40,000 housing benefit claimants and a Home Office contractor misplacing a memory stick which had confidential data about "tens of thousands of criminals".

These types of headlines have been "all too familiar reading over the last year". As the need for larger amounts of information and storage increases, it is probable that we will see more of this kind of news in the future.

We carried out a survey and spoke to 105 doctors at a "major teaching hospital" in the capital.

92 of the doctors had USB memory sticks, of which 79 contained personal patient data. However, only "five of the 79 memory sticks had password protection enabled".

It is likely that this relaxed attitude to security would be the case for doctors at most hospitals in the UK.

The devices are often "attached to keys or ID badges carried inside and outside hospitals". It would be easy to lose them.

According to the Data Protection Act 1988, patients should be able to trust that their personal information is: "processed fairly and lawfully...kept secure...not transferred abroad unless to countries with adequate data protection laws".

The survey we performed only examined one of the rights patients should expect under the Act. It is a cause for concern to think about how many others are being disregarded.

Although technology has improved how data is processed and assessed, it is important that every patient's right to confidentiality is ensured. Unless methods are improved, the NHS will surely soon be following other institutions into the headlines for the wrong reasons.


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