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Atos behind extraction of GP data

Under-fire firm Atos is behind the extraction of patient records from GP surgeries as part of the controversial NHS data-sharing scheme, MPs were told today.

The House of Commons Health Committee heard that Atos is implementing and managing the software for removing personal data from GP records.

The data-sharing scheme has been pushed back until the autumn after NHS England bowed to enormous pressure from groups including the Royal College of GPs and the British Medical Association (BMA).

Atos has repeatedly hit the headlines over "fitness for work" tests on disabled benefit claims it carries out for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). Last week, it confirmed it was seeking an early exit from its contract with the Government in the face of persistent death threats to staff.

Atos Healthcare said it had been in discussions with officials for "several months" about ending its £500 million work capability assessment contract which is due to run to August 2015.

The company has been heavily criticised over the assessments - which are used to gauge eligibility for employment and support allowance and incapacity benefit - amid claims people are being wrongly recommended for work, or put through stressful medical interviews.

Last summer it was announced that the company, which was originally appointed by the last Labour government in 2008, had been instructed to implement a "quality improvement plan" following an "unacceptable" deterioration in the quality of its written reports.

At the same time the DWP said it would be seeking to bring in additional providers in order to increase capacity and cut waiting times.

Earlier this month, disability minister Mike Penning told MPs the volume of appeals against the assessments - around 600,000 since their introduction - meant there was "real concern" about the work being carried out.

Under the NHS scheme, data from GP records will be linked with information from hospitals to give an idea of what happens to patients at all stages.

The data that will be extracted by Atos from GP systems includes information on family history, vaccinations, referrals for treatment, diagnoses and information about prescriptions.

It will also include biological values such as a patient's blood pressure, body mass index and cholesterol levels.

Personal confidential data (PCD) identifiers will also be taken, such as date of birth, postcode, NHS number and gender.

The written notes a GP makes during a consultation will not be extracted. The data will be held by the NHS Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) and anonymised by officials there.

Fully anonymised data will be made available publicly to anyone outside the NHS.

Data considered to be potentially identifiable - for example where a patient in a small town has a rare disease - will only be released to approved organisations for the specific purpose of benefiting the health and social care system.

NHS England plans to make this "amber" data available to organisations outside the NHS, such as medical charities, think-tanks, data analytics companies and universities.

Private firms such as pharmaceutical companies might also be able to obtain the data under plans to be discussed next month.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the BMA general practitioners committee, told MPs: "Patients visit their GP, they visit us and they entrust us with very personal, confidential information as part of their life-long record in general practice.

"At the heart of our concern as GPs is that if patients mistrust or are concerned about the security of their data, or have concerns about how this data will be used, that would actually potentially, irrevocably damage that fabric of trust when a patient walks into their GP surgery.

"That may actually have other consequences in the way the NHS records data, it may actually result in patient not attending their surgery at all, for fear or what may happen to their records.

"Or they might be inhibited in being totally open about some things."

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