Intended for healthcare professionals


Sale of prescription data breaches confidentiality

BMJ 1999; 318 doi: (Published 05 June 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;318:1505
  1. Clare Dyer, legal correspondent
  1. BMJ

    Doctors and pharmacists who sell information about doctors' prescriptions to a database company for commercial use would breach patient confidentiality even though the information was anonymised, a High Court judge ruled last week.

    The case is the first in the English courts to raise the question of whether the use of anonymised data breaches patient confidentiality.

    The ruling at the High Court in London throws into question the legality of the widespread use of anonymised data from patients' medical records for medical research.

    Mr Justice Latham held that pharmacists and doctors could not lawfully take part in a scheme to sell prescription information to pharmaceutical companies because patients' implied consent covered use of their data only for treatment and related NHS purposes.

    Source Informatics, a subsidiary of a US company, had challenged Department of Health guidelines saying that disclosure of details from prescriptions would constitute a breach of confidentiality which could lay doctors and pharmacists open to legal action.

    Source Informatics operates a prescriber database for pharmaceutical companies wanting to target GPs more precisely with promotions and information about their products.

    After the Department of Health's guidance in July 1997, GPs had refused to allow their prescription details to be supplied to the database.

    The judge was not willing to pronounce on the legality of using anonymised patient records for research without hearing evidence specifically on the point, so this remains an open question.

    He said that there were two possible arguments that doctors or researchers could use if the question arose: that patients had given implied consent to the use of their records for research or that disclosure of the information in these circumstances would be in the public interest.

    Source Informatics was given permission to appeal to the Court of Appeal after its counsel, Sarah Moore, told the judge: “This case raises issues of huge importance for the law of confidentiality.”

    She added: “There is very little authority on this point despite the fact that material from patients' records is routinely used for statistical and research purposes.”