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Do patients truly care about privacy?

Data scandals have had little effect on customer behaviour, says C+D news editor James Waldron

They say all publicity is good publicity. In the case of Pharmacy2U – fined £130,000 in October for selling patient data – this certainly seems to be the case.

The Information Commissioner’s Office, the privacy watchdog, revealed that, in 2014, the online business sold the names and address of 21,500 patients, some of which ended up in the hands of a lottery company willing to “target vulnerable individuals”.

Readers were quick to raise concerns that the scandal could scupper the sector’s chances of gaining records access just as NHS England rolls out the long-awaited summary-care record to every community pharmacy in the country.

This unease was heightened when the Patients’ Association warned that the debacle could “undermine trust in the sector”. After all, public outcry against attempts to share patients’ anonymous GP records had already stopped the care.data initiative dead in its tracks.

But C+D’s in-depth analysis of data from the electronic prescription service (EPS) tells a different story. It turns out the ink had barely dried on the watchdog’s verdict before EPS nominations for the company began to rise noticeably. Even more surprisingly, this was a U-turn for Pharmacy2U, whose nominations had been declining slowly for the previous few weeks.

All of which begs the question: do patients really care about privacy? It could be a case of the public voting with their feet for the most “convenient option”, as argued by Pharmacy2U managing director Daniel Lee. Or perhaps Day Lewis’s Jay Patel was on the money when he suggested patients are oblivious to which company they’ve actually signed up with.

I’d wager it’s a bit of both – and throw in the wild card of increased awareness of Pharmacy2U’s prescription delivery service caused by the recent publicity. In the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the level of government surveillance in our lives, we’re increasingly curious about what happens to our data. But just as the Snowden files haven’t stopped us from happily typing out our bank details to get a takeaway on Friday night, perhaps Pharmacy2U’s actions haven’t been quite the catastrophe the sector feared.

The data-selling saga isn’t over. The General Pharmaceutical Council seems sensitive to how pharmacists misuse data, if its recent determination to strike off a pharmacist for “plundering patient confidentiality” is anything to go by, and the regulator is still deciding whether to take action against Pharmacy2U. But would even this manage to dent the company’s nomination numbers? Well, you know what they say about publicity.


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