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Patient confidentiality

Time to limit the damage

Scaremongering stories from newspapers could damage the trust between pharmacy and the public.

Scaremongering stories from newspapers may damage the trust between pharmacy and the public and should be taken seriously


The front page of The Daily Telegraph on 10 August 2015 read ‘Boots, Tesco and Superdrug to get access to NHS medical records’. Similar stories ran in the Daily Mail and The Independent, with morning television in the UK also covering the story.

The reports say health officials plan to send sensitive data from GP surgeries to pharmacies starting this autumn, without considering the views of patients because research from pilots garnered only 15 responses, and their views were discarded since the sample was so small.

The coverage raised concerns among the public that summary care records would be used by marketeers to target vulnerable patients. Reactions on social media shared these fears. “I don’t remember being asked if I was happy to share my medical records with any pharmacy, let alone supermarket ones,” said one Twitter user, with others concerned that data would be sold on to third parties.

Although some people were worried that individual pharmacists and pharmacy technicians would be able to see their records, the majority of the comments raised concerns about large corporations exploiting their data. Pharmacy teams understand that, every time a record is accessed, it must be for a specific purpose with explicit patient consent and the information must be treated according to the laws of patient confidentiality — it will not be passed on to the company or third parties. However, no matter how unfounded patient fears are, they must be taken seriously.

It is vital that patients trust pharmacists and pharmacy technicians, and inaccurate stories in the press can damage that trust if they are not handled properly. The Royal Pharmaceutical Society, the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee and Pharmacy Voice have already penned a letter to The Daily Telegraph to try to allay patient fears.

Community pharmacists must reassure patients that their top priorities lie with providing excellent and appropriate healthcare and the profit-making concerns the business owners. Instead of simply obtaining consent when accessing the summary care record, pharmacists must make the most of these opportunities to explain why they have chosen to do so and how it will benefit their patients.

With stories about data leakage and exploitation regularly in the news — the data from 2.4 million customers was stolen from Carphone Warehouse in August 2015 — it is easy to see why patients may be concerned about who is accessing their medical information. If pharmacists can take the time to explain their role to those they treat and counsel, while highlighting that they cannot and would not share that information with corporate bosses, they can reinforce their position as trusted healthcare professionals — more akin to a GP than a shop-owner.

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2015.20069183

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