Plans to allow an NHS system to extract patient data from doctors’ surgeries in England have been delayed amid concerns around privacy.
The new GP data-sharing system was due to start in July but has been pushed back to September 1, a health minister told MPs.
Health minister Jo Churchill insisted that the data programme will still go ahead this year.
The coming weeks will see the plan “strengthened” and work undertaken to “ensure that data is accessed securely”, she said.
The Information Commissioner welcomed the delay to the launch.
Elizabeth Denham said there remains “considerable confusion regarding the scope and nature” of the programme.
The scheme will collect information on people’s treatments, referrals and appointments over the past 10 years, alongside other data from medical records held on GPs’ systems.
The collected data is coded by NHS Digital to protect patient identities.
Ms Churchill told the House of Commons: “Data saves lives, it’s as simple as that. We’ve seen that in the pandemic, it’s one of the lessons of the vaccine rollout.
“The GP data programme will strengthen this system and save lives and patient data is of course owned by the patient.
“And we are absolutely determined to take people with us on this journey. We have therefore decided we will proceed with the important programme but we will take some extra time.
“As we have conversed with stakeholders over the past couple of days, the implementation date will now be on September 1 and we will use this time to talk to patients, doctors, health charities and others to strengthen the plan, build a trusted research environment and ensure that data is accessed securely.
“This agenda is so important, because we all know in here, data saves lives.”
Simon Bolton, chief executive of NHS Digital, said: “Data saves lives and has huge potential to rapidly improve care and outcomes, as the response to the Covid-19 pandemic has shown.
“The vaccine rollout could not have been delivered without effective use of data to ensure it reached the whole population.
“We are absolutely determined to take people with us on this mission. We take our responsibility to safeguard the data we hold incredibly seriously.
“We intend to use the next two months to speak with patients, doctors, health charities and others to strengthen the plan even further.”
The programme, GP Data for Planning and Research, will supersede a 10-year-old system which “needs to be replaced”, NHS Digital said.
It will not collect entire GP records.
And all the data will be pseudonymised before it leaves the GP surgery to ensure patients cannot be directly identified from the data.
Information will be accessed by organisations “which will legitimately use the data for healthcare planning and research purposes”, and all requests will be subject to independent oversight and scrutiny, NHS Digital said.
Patients will be able to opt out.
Ms Denham said: “I welcome the decision to delay the launch of the General Practice Data for Planning and Research (GPDPR) data collection scheme.
“The appropriate use of health data is an important part of health and care research and planning in England, and better sharing of health data could offer substantial benefits.
“However, it is clear that there remains considerable confusion regarding the scope and nature of the GPDPR, among both healthcare practitioners and the general public. This includes how data protection rights can be exercised in practice.
“It is sensible for NHS Digital to take more time to engage with its stakeholders, and consider the feedback it is receiving about its plans.”
She continued: “The success of any project will rely on people trusting and having confidence in how their personal data will be used.
“Data protection law enables organisations to share data safely and, when it comes to using health information, there are particular safeguards that must be put in place to protect people’s privacy and ensure effective transparency. This ensures people’s data isn’t used or shared in ways they wouldn’t expect.
“We look forward to continuing to engage with NHS Digital regarding this important project.”
Shadow health minister Alex Norris said: “This must now mean that all elements, including the opt-out, are delayed and there must be a full public consultation about this issue before the data collection is resumed.”
Leading GPs also welcomed the delay.
Professor Martin Marshall, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, said: “It is essential that this time is used to properly communicate with the public and with clinicians so that patients and GPs have trust in the programme.”
He added: “Surveys show that most patients are happy for their data to be used for legitimate planning and research purposes, but this must be built around trust.
“What data will be shared, with which organisations, how and why this will be done – and, in particular, what safeguards are in place to ensure data is not used inappropriately – must be communicated effectively with patients and healthcare professionals, so that they have trust in the programme.”
Dr Farah Jameel, executive team member of the British Medical Association’s GP Committee, said: “We know from our members that many family doctors feel that all their patients may not yet know what’s changing, and many practices do not believe that they themselves have been given the right level of information nor adequate time to comprehensively understand the programme, its merits and the safeguards it will operate within.
“It’s clear that previous communication from NHS Digital on this programme has, frankly, been either inadequate or non-existent.
“While the BMA understands that data-sharing plays a key role in planning and research as well as developing treatments, we also know that the crux of the GP-patient relationship relies on trust, transparency and honesty, and therefore allowing the public to make fully informed decisions is paramount.”