Feature Law

Has the Data Protection Act been misused as a fig leaf for medical secrecy?

BMJ 2013; 347 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.f4515 (Published 16 July 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f4515
  1. Clare Dyer, legal correspondent
  1. 1BMJ, London WC1H 9JR, UK
  1. claredyer4{at}gmail.com

When, if ever, do doctors have the right to withhold their performance data from the public domain? Clare Dyer reports in the wake of a series of high profile media cases involving health figures

The Data Protection Act 1998 is far from a model of clarity and simplicity. Even judges, no slouches when it comes to interpreting complex statutes, remark on the difficulty of picking a path through it. One called it “a thicket” and “a cumbersome and inelegant piece of legislation.”

Perhaps, then, the Care Quality Commission’s (CQC) new management could be forgiven for trying to play it safe by keeping under wraps the identities of three officials accused of playing a part—which they deny—in covering up an internal review.1 After all, the new chief executive, David Behan, and chair, David Prior, were acting on legal advice. But the decision to omit the names of the three, who include the commission’s former chief executive Cynthia Bower and her deputy, Jill Finney, backfired spectacularly. The CQC was caught up in a media storm after the information commissioner, Christopher Graham, “saw red” and rubbished its interpretation of the law.2

Graham, who is responsible for compliance with the act, told BBC television that what appeared to be going on was “a general duck-out,” which was “all too common.” The act gives individuals a right to keep their personal data private, but there are circumstances in which the right can be overridden on public interest grounds. “If you are a senior official there …

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