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Some people know me as OrangeBlossomer because that's me on Twitter. This blog is a random collection of daily musings about life and stuff I love, such as journalism, dog (sadly my dog died in 2010 so probably no more), women, love and lack of love, boobs (only seldom but it does get me extra online traffic), taichi (I practise) and spirituality (should practise more). I have a day job as a jetsetting publishing foreign rights manager but I am also an NCTJ-qualified journalist and a writer/columnist at heart. Writing is my opium.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Why the Freedom of Information Act makes GPs vulnerable under the new NHS

[This post first appeared in The Help Me Investigate blog]

The National Health Service is about to undergo a major overhaul, with strategic health authorities and primary care trusts being abolished and GPs gaining control of the NHS budget and responsibility to commission healthcare services. 
Some GPs are not happy about the pressure imposed by their additional administrative duties, which could detract from their primary role as doctors. Others may see the change as empowering, but more power probably also means increased public scrutiny – for doctors are not immune to the spying eye of Freedom of Information Act.

The resolution of case reference FS50295954 of the Information Commissioner's Office involving a general practice in County Durham illustrates the point. 

The case was referred to the Information Commissioner, when the complainant failed to obtain full disclosure of the information he had requested to the practice. The ICO ruled in favour of the complainant. 

What happened? 
1. The complainant wrote an FOI letter to Weardale Practice requesting information on eight points mainly relating to the Practice's Health and Safety regulations. 
2. Some of the information was released after the Information Commissioner intervened but some remained undisclosed.
3. The Practice tried to justify withholding information by using section 40 (2) of the Freedom of the Information Act, which refers to exemption on the grounds of personal data protection.
4. The Commissioner did not think disclosure of the information requested would cause damage or distress to the individuals whose data would be made public through it.
5. The ICO considered that Weardale Practice was in breach of the Freedom of Information Act.

You can read the Decision Notice in its entirety here

The law is clear on doctors' accountabilities. Schedule 1 of the Freedom of Information Act covers which public authorities the Act covers. Part III of Schedule 1 relates to organisations and individuals in the National Health Service, with paragraphs 44 and 45 referring specifically to GPs and other medics:

"44. Any person providing general medical services, general dental services, general ophtalmic services or pharmaceutical services under Part II of the National Health Service Act 1977, in respect of information relating to the provision of those services

45. Any person providing personal medical services or personal dental services under arrangements made under section 28C of the National Health Service Act 1977, in respect of information relating ot the provision of those services." 

Under the Freedom of Information Act, not only a practice but individual doctors working at the practice are considered to be public authorities and can therefore be held accountable. 

Nothing new there. The novelty could be in the fact that we may be evaluating our GPs less as healers of our ailments, more as politicians in charge of public affairs that impact our welfare. 

As long as the Freedom of Information Act rules, it is the patients who will have their fingers on the doctor's pulse.

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