Massive Medical Databases Not Protected By Privacy Law – 28 January 2000

Massive medical databases of personal patient information are being established in Australia and will not be protected by privacy legislation, Dr Bruce Shepherd, Chairman of the Australian Doctors’ Fund warned today.

At a time when Australia is on the verge of introducing “staggeringly weak” privacy legislation governments are racing ahead with setting up databases which link patients’ most private and personal health details, he said.

Dr Shepherd said that the Health Online report released by the federal government late last year supports the setting up of a massive Australia wide database of patient medical information, unique lifetime patient identifiers and smart cards for doctors to access the information.

“There is absolutely no evidence that this will benefit patient care,” said Dr Shepherd. “There are very few occasions in medicine when the doctor needs any more than what the patient tells them and what other doctors who have treated them can tell you.

“This whole movement is being driven by technology and by the fact that a lot of people out there want your personal data very badly – commercial organisations, marketing departments, government and researchers.

“This is not some far off plan in the future,” said Dr Shepherd. “It is happening now and it is happening without public debate.

“The implications for patients are terrifying. Once you start linking data on patients you are building a personal profile on them.

“It also means that any mistake, any coding inaccuracy, any prejudice by a treating doctor, will go down on your personal electronic file and be used by goodness knows how many people and organisations.”

Already in NSW they are setting up systems to link information about patients using the public hospital system and are establishing specific patient identifiers to allow this to happen, said Dr Shepherd.

Anybody who visits a doctor assumes that the information they give will not be disclosed to a third party without their consent nor will it be used so that they can be targeted for any purpose – medical, administrative or commercial, he said.

“This is a core value of Australian life and it is being thrown out of the window overnight,” said Dr Shepherd.

“Your personal relationship with the doctor is being replaced by a relationship with a cast of thousands – health professionals, bureaucrats and researchers – and you will not even know it is happening.

“Even in the public sector it is quite easy to gain access to confidential information by getting patients to sign a piece of paper when they go into hospital or even by saying that the NSW Department of Health owns the information because they collected it.

“Well if someone is visiting the doctor today there is no way they believe that they are entering into a relationship with the entire NSW public health system,” said Dr Shepherd.

“This is the most significant thing to happen in Australian health care since the introduction of Medicare and it is happening without public debate,” said Dr Shepherd.