A single information sharing protocol for health and adult social care staff is to be developed by the end of the year by the Department of Health and Connecting for Health’s Care Record Development Board together with patients and service users.

The forthcoming protocol is one of three measures announced by the Cabinet Office’s Better Regulation Executive as part of a joint project with the Department of Health to reduce or remove unnecessary burdens caused by the way information is shared across the healthcare sector. Other changes include plans to no longer request patient records for personal accident claims below £10,000 from June this year, expected to reduce the number of requests by 300,000 a year, and to issue guidance on the secondary uses of personal information for medical research by September 2006.

Jim Murphy, Cabinet Office minister responsible for better regulation, said: "This report is about removing some of the barriers that inhibit frontline health and social care staff on a day-to-day basis. By clearing up the confusion that currently exists around sharing patient information and removing some of the administrative burdens on staff, we are enabling them to focus on the invaluable work of treating patients."

The Cabinet Office report (link: http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/regulation/documents/mad/data_sharing.pdf) says a great deal of information can and should be shared within the existing professional guidelines and legal framework.

But it adds: "Persistent confusion exists amongst practitioners over the interpretation of the Data Protection Act and its relationship with the common law duty of confidentiality, and other legislation such as the Human Rights Act, Health and Social Care Act and other data sharing legislation. Such confusion often relates to what information can be shared and the level of detail permissible. This confusion is further compounded where central government departments and professional bodies all issue guidance on sharing information, which is often inconsistent."

The report says work is already underway to address some of these problems including the establishment of the Care Record Development Board (CRDB) and an NHS review of information governance due to report soon. Its says the health department will take into account the results of this review, together with the CRDB, to devise its protocol which will cover when data needs to be shared, what data this is and clarify the requirements for patient/service user consent.

Information sharing issues continue to be at the heart of the debate about how the NHS Care Records Service will function when it begins to work, with pilots of the summary record due to start later this year.

The report also looks at the use of patient data for medical research and again identifies confusion among front line staff about what can be done and conflicting guidance from professional bodies. It says one example suggested this had led to a reduction in data flow to cancer registries causing a negative impact on associated research. Its says the health department’s recently published national health research strategy sets out the government’s goal to make the UK the best place in the world for research.

It adds: "One of the strategy’s goals is that the National Programme for IT will transform the research community’s capacity both to recruit patients to clinical trials and to gather data to support research on the health of the populations and the effectiveness of health interventions."

As a result, the report recommends that, by September, the Department of Health will develop and issue a single set of guidance on the secondary uses of personal information for medical research, population health and management.

Dr Peter Holden, deputy chairman of the GP committee of the British Medical Association, said: "The BMA welcomes this agreement which we hope will lead to reduced bureaucratic burdens on GPs."



Cabinet Office report