Up to 200,000 requests are made under by investigators under false pretences to obtain health information on British patients each year. And most attempts succeed, according to the Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR).
This calculation is based upon an old pilot study in one health authority exposed 30 phone calls per week made under false pretences, with investigators pretending to be doctors or health administrators. The pilot was inspired by a BMA recommendation in 1996 that telephone requests to a health authority or provider for patient information should be logged, approved by a clinician and then authenticated by calling back to a telephone number in the NHS directory.
So did the NHS embrace and extend this scheme? Of course not, the whole idea was shelved.
The FIPR wants to see telephone request auditing reintroduced. The vast majority of bogus enquiries could be stopped with the basic telephone discipline tested in the pilot scheme, it says.
The willingness of UK health professionals to hand over confidential information to every Tom, Private Dick and Harry, should set alarm bells ringing, with the massive centralisation of NHS patient information in place.
According to the FIPR, NHS Systems fail to protect patient confidentiality. The influential think-tank is urging the Government to improve privacy protection of patients' medical information. The call to action comes in response to a National Health Service (NHS) consultation.
Current NHS strategy is focused on creating a central electronic patient record database. We already have a "clearing" database which records payments made for all hospital treatment, along with the names and addresses of patients.
And other medical databases available to ministers and civil servants contain enough information to identify the vast majority of the patients.
Making this information available to so many NHS administrators and civil servants is unethical and will lead to growing abuse, the FIPR argues.
Instead of creating a central patient records database, the NHS would do better concentrating on preventing existing abuse, the FIPR says.
It also recommends that patients must unambiguously consent before their medical records are shared with anyone but the clinical staff actually providing treatment. Breaches of confidentiality should automatically be notified to patients and invoices should not carry a patient's name, but simply an order number.
FIPR chairman Ross Anderson said: "Patients entrust some of their most sensitive personal information to their doctors. NHS managers should not be trying to undermine that trust by spreading identifiable patient data around the health service bureaucracy and the civil service."
He continued: "The NHS must modernise their systems to protect rather than undermine patients' privacy. Otherwise they risk the trust between patient and doctor that is vital for effective healthcare." ®