The patient records and confidential medical notes of millions of Britons were being sent to India for processing by the National Health Service (NHS), despite a promise by the government that personal information won't be sent abroad, a media report said.
The Sunday Times reported that it was the first time that databases containing names, addresses and NHS numbers of patients were sent abroad.
In an effort to cut costs, NHS managers were putting in changes despite warnings about poor security in some offshore centres.
The newspaper identified seven primary care trusts in northeast London, serving more than 1.5 million people, which have begun to send patient details overseas. The databases are administered by about 200 people in Pune, India.
Information sent to India did not include confidential clinical records, but only patients' names, NHS numbers and home addresses. Security was very strict in Pune and the company complied fully with data protection laws, a spokesman said.
Although Indian firms handling the records said security was "paramount", there was a risk of patients being identified.
A set of clinical notes are normally based on a consultant’s findings during an interaction with a patient, which is read into a voice recorder during or after the appointment.
The recording is then transferred to a computer and sent to India, where it is transcribed.
The media report cited a source involved in processing the information as saying that patient names can come up during the appointment and may then inadvertently be included with the clinical data.
Ministers have attempted to allay fears about the confidentiality of patient information since the launch of the scheme to computerise health records.
In January 2007, Caroline Flint, then health minister, told parliament that the project would “expressly preclude the transfer of patient information outside the United Kingdom”.
Among others, The Royal Free hospital in London, the Derby hospitals trust and the Newham University hospital trust are sending clinical notes overseas.
“Given the government’s track record of losing data in this country, it is worrying that data are being sent overseas. Every transfer of information adds to the risk of it being lost,” John Hemming, Liberal Democrat MP for Birmingham Yardley, was quoted as saying.