Dependent on your view, the delay in rolling out the NHS data-sharing scheme is either a body blow to medical treatment and patient care or the greatest thing for personal privacy since ID cards disappeared into the political void.
The arguments for and against the database of medical records are well trodden. Supporters argue it will facilitate better patient care and treatment by linking GP and hospital medical records, and will support medical research and development. Critics argue that the database presents an intolerable risk to privacy, with patients’ records potentially falling into the wrong hands or being shared with third parties for commercial advantage. The delay to the scheme is reminiscent of the ‘pause’ in the Health and Social Care Act, but NHS England continues to insist the scheme will be launched in the autumn once it has better informed the public about how it will affect them and how they can opt out of their medical records being included.
The saga demonstrates a number of important points. Firstly, as any PR consultant or political strategist worth their salt will tell you, the media abhors a vacuum. The scale of the database was always going to attract attention – particularly given central government’s fairly lamentable record in introducing IT solutions across various areas of policy. By failing to make the case for the database, NHS England left critics with the time and opportunity poke holes in new system. NHS England now faces an enormous communications challenge, as it will start its new communications blitz on the backfoot and must counter detractors of the database before it can win the hearts and minds of the public.
The second point is that any suggestion of the decline in the weight of the medical profession’s opinion is premature. The delay of the rollout has been caused in large part by the very vocal opposition of the BMA, Healthwatch England and Royal College of GPs, who’ve not only successfully outlined the big picture but have mobilised case studies and individual examples to show how the database could fail, and how GPs could be penalised (in some cases by losing their practices) if they don’t comply and submit their patients’ records. In doing this, the medical profession has successfully courted public sympathy.
The third point, and perhaps the most interesting, is one highlighted very astutely in The Guardian by Ian Birrell. Jeremy Hunt has been a notable absentee in much of the column inches regarding the medical records database. The bulk of the criticism has fallen on NHS England. In one sense this shows how the Government’s reforms have separated the NHS management and the political leadership, as such a debacle would have once severely undermined a Health Secretary. In another sense it’s a clear demonstration of how astutely Jeremy Hunt has positioned himself – and he will likely continue to win plaudits for championing patient care while avoiding the criticism for the records database.