UK patients' medical records could be shared across Europe in a European Commission scheme that could compound controversy over the NHS's patient records system.
The Department of Health has faced a barrage of criticism over its handling of the Connecting For Health computer system, and patients have been refused a vital opt-out of the system which ministers had promised.
The Commission's Framework 7 project, which funds research in the European Union, contains an element called the Competitiveness and Innovation Framework Programme (CIP), which proposes a link up between the health information systems of European countries.
"Interoperability and integration of data can improve the care provided to patients, the reduction of medical error, and the human and economic cost savings that can be achieved," said a Commission document, Connected Health: Quality and Safety for European Citizens, published last autumn. "As a result of an aging population and the empowerment of citizens, demands on health and social care are continuously rising. The advantages obtained from eHealth include accessibility and timely availability of medical data, improved workflow and seamless disease management, new clinical applications."
Privacy advocates, though, fear that the potential problems inherent in a UK-wide health information system would only be compounded by a Europe-wide system. "If it comes to the point that every one of the five million people working in healthcare in Europe, plus the CIA and hackers, can access the information, then I'll stop using the health service," Ross Anderson, a security engineering professor at Cambridge university, told the ZDNet.co.uk news service.
The NHS's proposed system has been beset by cost over-runs and delays. Recently OUT-LAW revealed that the Department of Health denied a large number of requests from patients to opt out of the system. The British Medical Association has threatened to ask GPs to boycott the system in protest.
The data likely to be shared in any Europe-wide system is similar to that in the summary care record which will be the first part of the NHS system to go live later this year. Both systems will start out by making available emergency care information and medical histories.
Opponents fear that putting that data in one centralised database makes it vulnerable to hackers from outside the system. Even if external security is protected, though, the possibility that tens of thousands of health sector workers could have access to medical records worries some.
European ministers discussed and approved an information sharing system in 2005 at an eHealth conference in Tromso in Norway. "In a Europe in which our citizens are increasingly mobile – whether within the borders of their own Member State or among different countries – we need to raise awareness of the pressing need for a more integrated and interoperable European health information space," said a joint statement after that discussion. "The Ministers commit to taking up this challenge in a staged and structured approach over the next five-year period."
The system would be jointly funded by the participating member states and by the European Commission. The Commission is said to be on the verge of issuing an official call for proposals on what kind of scheme it should operate.