Medical research may be damaged by court ruling on anonymised patient data

November 18, 1999

Consequences for research is use of anonymised patient data breaches confidentiality

Future developments of healthcare treatments may be seriously handicapped by a recent court ruling which intimates that the use of anonymised patient data may constitute a breach of confidentiality, write several leading epidemiologists in a joint letter in this week's BMJ.

Led by Lord Walton of Detchant, the authors write that research using patient records, has provided important information on factors predisposing to disease and recovery from illness. They say that the consequences of the judgement (Source Informatics v Department of Health, 28 May 1999) " threatens much health care research by suggesting that the use of patient data that have been subjected to procedures ensuring anonymity of individual people may, nevertheless, constitute a breach of confidentiality. The consequences of this decision", write Lord Walton et al, "..are potentially so far reaching that the development of new treatments, particularly new drugs, may be seriously handicapped in the future."

The authors conclude by saying that they strongly support the acceptability of using anonymised patient data for healthcare research, without it being regarded as a breach of confidentiality and they recommend that written guidelines are prepared to clarify the current uncertain situation for researchers.

Dr Peter Fletcher, Independent Consultant, Pharma Services International, Hatfield Heath, Hertfordshire Email:


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