Health Department challenged over “absurd” hospital consultant secrecy

The Department of Health has been challenged over its “absurd” refusal to say how many consultants work in individual trusts or hospital departments. The Department claims that it would be breaking the Data Protection Act by releasing these figures. But the Campaign for Freedom of Information says the Act is being misused and that revealing the numbers of consultants in a hospital would not invade any consultant’s privacy or break data protection rules. It says the secrecy makes it difficult to detect possible staff shortages.

The Campaign’s challenge follows a health minister’s refusal earlier this year to disclose precise figures about the numbers of consultants in each accident and emergency ward in England. Although the minister, John Hutton, published figures rounded to the nearest 10, he refused to give the precise numbers saying “Where this figure is less than 10, there is a risk that individual doctors could be identified. This is contrary to the Data Protection Act 1998.”(Hansard 8.4.03, cols 234-5, response to a PQ by Dr Evan Harris MP). The same answer has been given in response to a number of other questions about NHS consultant numbers. The Campaign has now formally asked for this information under the open government code of practice, which requires government departments to release information on request.

The Campaign says the Department’s policy could conceal serious drops in staffing levels. There would be no way to tell from the published figures whether the number of consultants in a department had increased or fallen within a given band. If the numbers had gone from 4 to 1 (or vice versa) the figure given would always be “less than 5”. In some cases the figure has changed from “10” one year to “less than 5” the next. But as the “10” could represent any figure from 5 to 14, it is impossible to know whether this represents a modest change from 5 consultants to 4 or a drastic collapse, from 14 to 1.

The Campaign says the Department’s position is absurd and disputes its view that releasing statistics would allow individual doctors to be identified. It says that in any case, naming a hospital’s consultants does not infringe the consultants’ privacy or breach data protection rules. All doctors’ names are publicly available on the General Medical Council’s web site and most trusts already publish their consultants’ names on their own web sites. The Department of Health itself has been advising trusts to publish “details about their clinicians and their responsibilities” since 1995. Hospital appointment letters sent to patients normally include the consultant’s name. The Department itself publishes the names of consultants who have received pay awards for ‘clinical excellence’ and will soon also publish information about named doctors’ clinical performance.

The Campaign says it assumes the Department’s policy is the result of an unthinking approach to the Data Protection Act rather than a deliberate attempt to conceal staff levels. Its director, Maurice Frankel said: “authorities often cite the Data Protection Act to justify withholding information about people acting in an public capacity, where there is no risk to their privacy, no breach of data protection rules, but where the secrecy may undermine public accountability“.

He added: “I cannot believe that any doctor would regard it as a breach of his or her privacy to be identified as a consultant. What is astonishing is that, to prevent anyone reaching this innocuous conclusion, the Department is prepared to obscure detailed staffing figures for the whole NHS. If the Department of Health, which is assumed to be an authority on confidentiality issues, adopts the extreme position of refusing to say how many consultants work in a hospital department, other authorities are likely to follow suit and no statistic will be safe from censorship.”

Note:

The Campaign’s letter to the DH is attached (4 pages)

Further information:

Maurice Frankel or Katherine Gundersen 020 7490 3958

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