Opposition calls for My Health Record roll-out to be suspended in Australia amid growing data privacy concern-s

Bill Shorten, Leader of the Australian Labor Party, has ramped up opposition to the My Health Record roll-out, calling for the suspension of the national health database in the wake of a privacy backlash that shows no signs of abating.

By
Lynne
Minion

[Canberra, Australia] Leader of the Australian Labor Party Bill Shorten claimed today that concerns need to be addressed before the major infrastructure project that has so far cost approximately £1.13bn ($2bn) continues on path that will see every Australian provided with a My Health Record unless they opt out by 15 October.

According to the ABC, Shorten said the Australian government’s recent track-record in the management of technology projects concerned him.

"I actually think it would be smart of the government to suspend the roll-out of the My Health Record system until all of the privacy concerns are actually addressed,” Shorten said.

The news is a major setback for the Australian Digital Health Agency, which has continued to defend the system in the face of strident criticism from a cavalcade of opponents, including data privacy advocates, cybersecurity experts, domestic violence campaigners, doctors and mental health groups.

In one of the latest salvos, Vision Australia, its largest provider of services for people with blindness and low vision, claimed blind and vision-impaired people cannot opt out online because the system is incompatible with screen-reading software and other adaptive technologies. 

Former care.data chief Kelsey says the debate is 'welcome'

Yesterday, the agency’s CEO Tim Kelsey, who was in charge of the controversial care.data programme in the UK, told FairFax Media - in rare media comments since the unfolding communications disaster began at the start of the opt out period - that the debate over My Health Record was welcome.

"We welcome the debate. It's very important that people are aware of both the benefits of My Health Record and their rights, and exercise a choice," Kelsey said.

"That is the purpose of this process."

Shorten’s call for the roll-out to be paused is a strengthening of the Australia Labor Party’s position from Monday when the Opposition called for an extension to the three-month opt-out period and a comprehensive information campaign to educate the public about Australia’s national online health information platform.

“There has been significant and growing community concern about the My Health Record since the beginning of the opt-out period on 16 July,” Australian Shadow Health Minister Catherine King said in a statement.

“The government has failed to effectively communicate with the public about what the My Health Record is and the potential benefits it could bring. It has also failed to explain to people how their rights will be respected and their privacy protected.

“This approach has fuelled suspicion and scepticism, which could be why tens of thousands of people rushed to opt out in the first week.”

Increasing concerns that the opt-out 'undermines public trust'

King expressed concerns that the Australian government’s implementation of the opt-out process has ‘seriously undermined public trust in this important policy’.

Labor introduced an opt-in version of My Health Record, while Malcolm Turnbull’s government (Australian Prime Minister and Leader of the Liberal Party) has chosen to shift the system to opt-out.

The news comes as President of the Australian Medical Association (AMA) Dr Tony Bartone, who has been My Health Record’s most vocal advocate in the last two weeks, confirmed that he will meet with Health Minister Greg Hunt next week ‘to gain assurances that the government will take further steps to ensure the privacy and security of the My Health Record’.

Bartone said there had been a groundswell of concern from AMA members, the broader medical profession and the public about the 2012 legislation framing the My Health Record, which allows the disclosure of health information for law enforcement purposes.

According to the legislation, access to information contained within My Health Record can be gained by entities including police forces, local councils and even the RSPCA  (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) without a warrant in what the parliamentary library has described as a ‘significant reduction’ in legal protections for private data.

“The priority of the AMA at all times has been to support the My Health Record and its precursors for the important clinical benefits it will deliver to doctors, patients, and the health system,” Bartone said.

“The AMA has always been protective and vigilant about the privacy of the doctor-patient relationship and this should not be affected by the My Health Record.

“Given the public debate this week, I support calls for the government to provide solid guarantees about the long-term security of the privacy of the My Health Record.”

Health Minister Hunt and the ADHA have claimed that in the six years My Health Record has been operating, it has never received a request for access to medical records and the agency ‘will not release any documents without a court/coronial or similar order’.

In the UK, the Health and Social Care Committee raised concerns about NHS Digital’s ‘ability to protect patient data’ earlier this year due to its Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Home Office, which allowed it to share data to track immigration offenders.  

Margot James, Minister for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport announced during a parliamentary debate on the data protection bill in May that the government had decided to suspend the MoU ‘with immediate effect’.

Originally published on HealthcareITNews Australia, a sister-publication of BJ-HC.

Lynne Minion

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