A group of distinguished charities dedicated to preventing violence against women and girls in the UK has expressed their alarm over the automatic opening up of NHS GP records, allowing patients to access them online or through the NHS app. The policy, which will take effect on 31 October, raises concerns about the personal safety of victims of domestic abuse and stalking.
More than 20 organizations, including End Violence Against Woman (EVAW), Refuge, and Women’s Aid, have signed an open letter alongside the British Medical Association (BMA), highlighting the potential risks of GP data sharing. The sharing plan was initially set to commence in 2021 but was postponed due to public concerns about privacy. The charities argue that the sharing of medical data may compromise victims’ safety by providing abusers with easier access to the information, which they can exploit for abusive purposes.
It is estimated that approximately one quarter of women experience domestic abuse in their lifetime, and one fifth are likely to experience stalking. Therefore, the group expresses deep concern about the implications of widespread record sharing.
Refuge interim CEO Ellen Miller expressed disappointment with the government and NHS England’s failure to address the real risks posed to survivors by these changes. She emphasized, “These changes will allow perpetrators to gain access to survivors’ personal health records, including details on medications, sexual, reproductive, and mental health records, and disclosures of domestic abuse.”
Miller added, “The lack of publicity around these changes means that some survivors’ records may already be available in the NHS app, and they do not even know it. It is essential that these changes are publicized widely, so that survivors know to take the necessary precautions to improve their safety and privacy.”
Additionally, Refuge points out that although the changes only legally apply to future medical records created after 31 October, inconsistencies in decisions made by local NHS bodies and patients’ opt-ins and opt-outs may result in data going back almost 50 years. In some cases, sensitive information may be redacted, while in others, it may not.
The group advises survivors to contact their GPs and request that access to their information be rescinded. They also suggest that if it is safe to do so, survivors may want to delete the NHS app from their devices until the health service can address the issues. They are also encouraged to review other medical apps they may use, such as menstrual cycle trackers, to ensure they have adequate safeguards.
With regards to GP practices, the group urges them to proactively protect patients, particularly those with safeguarding concerns. They also stress the importance of promptly responding to requests from women to turn off access.
Katie Bramall-Stainer, chair of the BMA GP Committee for England, voices concerns about the forced implementation of data sharing. She acknowledges the benefits of patients having access to their GP records on their smartphones but worries about potential risks, such as abusive spouses using sensitive clinical information against their partners. She points out, “These are but a few examples causing GPs as data controllers to raise concerns about this flawed implementation.”
Bramall-Stainer echoes Refuge’s call for patients to opt-out or temporarily cease using the NHS app until better measures are in place.
“GP practices should be sensitive to the risks created by these changes and take a proactive approach to protecting patients, particularly where there are safeguarding concerns. They also need to be aware that women may be concerned and respond speedily to requests to turn off access,” she added. “It is essential that survivors are protected as records are made accessible and that perpetrators cannot use medical information for abuse.”
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