Controversial NHS database delayed amid privacy fears

The curse of NHS IT projects struck again last night, when controversial plans for a database of patient information were put on hold amid public concern about the system.

The database, which would have gathered information about patients' address and medical records, will be halted until the public have been reassured that they can opt-out of the system.

"NHS England has failed to properly communicate to patients or GPs what this new database involves, how it affects our medical records and what the risks are," Nick Pickles, director of Big Brother Watch, said.

"The scheme's benefits are no justification for not properly informing people what will happen."

The decision to put the project on hold for six months came after a day of crisis talks between officials from NHS England and the British Medical Association (BMA), which has voiced concerns about the plan alongside the Royal College of General Practitioners.

The NHS will use the six-month window to launch an information campaign making patients aware of their right to opt-out.

"This is another NHS shambles of this government's own making," Jamie Reed, Labour shadow health minister, said.

"Patients need to be assured that their records will be genuinely anonymous and that they have had the opportunity to opt-out."

Officials insist that all households should have received a leaflet last month explaining the new system but polls show two-thirds of the public do not recall having done so.

Some  believe the leaflets failed to stand out from the collection of take-away menus and adverts which are typically rammed through people's letter boxes.

Writing on last week Liberty acting policy director Rachel Robinson warned the private data collected in the database could be sold on to private companies.

"This 'care-data' database will include your medical diagnoses, including cancer and mental health, your referrals to specialists, your prescriptions, your body mass index, details of your vaccinations and screening tests and your smoking and alcohol habits will be on there too," she said.

"Once it goes live, organisations including drug and insurance firms will be able to apply to purchase 'pseudonymised' details about patients.

"And 'backdoors' to the database will allow bodies like the police to enjoy direct access to your medical records as well."

Patients should mostly have until September to opt-out of the system, although a small number of GP practices may pilot the plans before then.

Tory MP and privacy campaigner David Davis  said: "Both the design and implementation of this database have been very poorly thought through".

Officials and the Department of Health will be well aware of the struggles the NHS has with implementing large-scale IT projects.

A £12 billion NHS computer scheme implemented by Labour was scrapped by the coalition in 2011 following years of failure.