Police Requests for Medical Records
Statutory responsibility vs professional obligations - a personal view
I am proud to be a GP and have enjoyed being part of a respected profession for over 30 years. General Practice has never been "just a job" and has always been a vocation and a profession. Being part of the community and working as a family doctor makes us unique, call me old fashioned but I still consider that it is an honour and a privilege to be a GP.
Over the last few years we have all found that our working lives have got busier and the demands on us have increased significantly. This is not only in terms of clinical time but the administrative burden has become, at times, unmanageable. I therefore support the BMA’s work to try and help resolve the unnecessary additional workload for GPs.
You will have seen the recent BMA advice on requests for information about patients from the Police.
The Police can always request information from a Practice with the patient’s consent. However, there is also a public interest test and you are permitted to release information without consent in certain circumstance. This could be to prevent a serious crime (a public interest test) or it may be authorised via the use of a DP2 form, which needs to be signed by a Senior Police Officer.
You should only give the minimum, or relevant, information, to satisfy the request: there is a difference between disclosing general information about a patient, and releasing copies of a patient’s medical record. The golden rule is for both the Practice and the Police to be able to justify the release of information being in the public interest.
In the past the advice was that Practices could not charge for the release of this information as Practices saw this as part of their professional duty and it would need to be an Inspector or above who had to sign a DP2
The recent BMA advice has taken a new interpretation on the law that relates to the release of patient information and has suggested that practices can charge a fee for this information and that the DP2 needs to be signed by a Superintendent or above.
This has already caused significant problems for the Police forces locally and hence in Hampshire all Practices have received a letter from the Police about this.
As the law has not changed and does not define that a DP2 needs a Superintendent’s signature it is difficult to understand why the advice has changed. I have discussed the matter with the BMA and they are in discussion with the senior Police representatives for England and hope to reach a satisfactory outcome shortly.
So where does this leave us?
I go back to the start of this topic. I may not have a statutory responsibility to provide information to the Police, in the public interest, without charging them a fee and I could insist that to make their life more difficult I would ask a Superintendent to sign the DP2 but my feelings of professional duty tells me that I should continue to work as before and provide this information without charge and accept the DP2 with an Inspector's signature. In return, I would expect to continue the positive and professional relationship that I have with the Police locally.
Each situation needs to be examined carefully and the balance struck between the two. Each of us must be prepared to justify our actions either to the Information Commissioner's Office, if release of information was later deemed a data protection breach but also to our patients and the public if any harm resulted from us withholding information from the Police in the vital work that they do. It is sometimes a difficult judgment but one that, as professionals, we must be prepared to make.
My advice is to continue with the previous BMA position and release information with a signed DP2 without charge, which can be signed by an Inspector whilst the negotiations continue between the Police and BMA.
Dr Nigel Watson, CEO Wessex LMCs