The British Medical Association has called for suspension of the current programme to upload electronic patients records to a national database on “serious concerns” that the process is happening too quickly.

Summary Care Records are a somewhat controversial component of the government’s £13-billion National Programme for IT, and are essentially secure, electronic summaries of patient health data.

The purpose behind storing such data electronically is, in the first instance, to provide healthcare professionals with important patient information at the touch of a button, making it easier to deliver the best care, particularly in emergency situations. But there remains strong concern over security issues associated with storing such information online, and critics argue that the system is too open to abuse by human curiosity.

In December, the Department of Health said the roll-out of the SCR would be accelerated, but according to the BMA GPs are reporting that its rushed implementation is leaving them without time to support patients in making informed choices, and that, in some instances, records are being created “without even implied consent from patients”.

Now, in a letter to health minister Mile O’Brien, the Association notes that the programme has been accelerated without before sufficient independent evaluation of pilots has taken place, and calls for the DH to “urgently consider” putting the brakes on the scheme’s implementation in areas which have not yet launched Public Information Programmes to inform the public of SCRs and what they entail, as well as ensure that an opt-out form is sent to every patient.

“The break-neck speed with which this programme is being implemented is of huge concern,” said Hamish Meldrum, chairman of council at the BMA. “Patients’ right to opt out is crucial, and it is extremely alarming that records are apparently being created without them being aware of it,” he said, and warned that if the process continues to be rushed, “not only will the rights of patients be damaged, but the limited confidence of the public and the medical profession in NHS IT will be further eroded”.

According to the BMA, there are a number of significant issues that need resolving resolution prior to a full-scale roll out of the scheme. For one, it says, and independent evaluation of the programme was “inconclusive” about workload issues. In its letter to O’Brien, the Association claimed that SCRs will generate extra work for GPs, which is not part of the GMS contract.

SCR boycott?
“In addition to the workload associated with ensuring data are of an appropriate quality for sharing, we feel that supporting patients to ensure their consent for the SCR is informed and adding information to the SCR following a GP consultation will impact adversely upon GP practices,” it stressed, and warned that a significant number of members of its GPs Committee are calling for “a boycott of the SCR and for the BMA to advise its members against uploading information onto the spine”.

The Patients’ Association has also echoed the BMA’s concerns, which it says should be “addressed immediately”. “There is a real danger that an initiative that will benefit patients is going to turn into the usual complete mess,” said director Katherine Murphy. “Many patients are rightly concerned about their confidentiality and consent and if there is even the slightest impression that this is being pushed through it will generate a feeling of mistrust” she warned.