The government has unveiled plans for a series of pilots to explore the feasibility of an opt out clause for patients not willing to automatically open up their electronic medical records for scientific research.

The Department of Health has this week published long-awaited findings of a consultation it carried out in 2008 to gage public feeling over plans to allow medical researchers access to data held within electronic health records, which are currently rolling out across the country.

Electronic medical records – also known as Summary Care Records - are a component of the government’s £13-billion National Programme for IT, and are essentially secure, electronic summaries of patient health data, including medications, allergies and drug reactions.

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, but, at the same time, the move will also create a very deep pool of medical data that scientists could potentially tap into for research.

However, public opposition to moves that would allow researchers unrestricted access to medical records remains strong. For example, a significant portion - over four in ten of the general public and 33% of patients - felt it was never acceptable for researchers to search patient records. And around half of the general public (53%) and patients (46%) said identifiable data should never be used without prior consent (compared to 11% of researchers).

On the other hand, 44% of the public and 56% of patients did feel it would be useful to flag up the records of those patients willing to be contacted directly by researchers carrying out studies.

According to the DH, the consultation revealed that “the public expects their consent to be sought if the data used is identifiable,” and that this means it now needs to test “how best to secure that consent and properly inform patients about the use of their identifiable medical records”.

Consequently, it is currently preparing a number of pilots in Hampshire, the Isle of Wight, Birmingham and Nottingham, the results of which – including the preferred mechanism of consent, will be unveiled by June next year.