Fact Sheet Fact Sheet

Data sharing in the NHS

Until recently, the government was using information from NHS patient records to check immigration status. This has now changed. What is the situation now?

Last updated

on 17.07.2018

  1. Patient details such as address are no-longer shared between NHS Digital and the Home Office for routine immigration enforcement. Data-sharing as a result of charging in secondary care is ongoing
  2. The updated terms of the Memorandum of Understanding between NHS Digital and the Home Office have not yet been made public
  3. Undocumented migrants are at high risk of avoiding healthcare because of fears of deportation

The Department of Health and NHS Digital signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Home Office in January 2017, requiring NHS Digital to pass patient information onto the Home Office to track down and arrest undocumented migrants. This arrangement compromised doctor-patient confidentiality. The Government justified this because of the public interest of ‘maintaining effective immigration control’.

Impact on those in vulnerable situations

Many doctors find data sharing ethically questionable. The GMC have said the Government should consider the public interest in maintaining a confidential health service. The RCGP were also against the data sharing agreement. There was no consultation with the public or clinicians before the MOU came into effect. No impact assessment was done.

As well as violating doctor-patient confidentiality, and putting clinicians in a difficult ethical position, this data sharing agreement deterred those in vulnerable situations from accessing healthcare. It also threatened public health through lack of early detection and treatment of communicable diseases, and the NHS more widely.

After wide condemnation, this policy has changed but for some patients, fear and distrust remain.

  • On 9 May 2018, the Government amended the terms of the MOU; data can now only be requested by the Home Office in relation to the investigation of ‘serious crime’.
  • Data sharing as a result of charging in secondary care is ongoing: a patient with an unresolved bill will be reported to the Home Office after two months.

What can you do?

Make sure patients know that their personal information is safe.

  • Following the change in policy, you can make it clear to patients that their information won’t be used to trace them because of their immigration status.
  • Their data can only be shared if ‘serious criminality’ or safeguarding is involved.
  • If you work in primary care, you can register patients with concerns with an alternative address: this could be the practice address, or the address of a mosque, church or community centre where post might reach them.
  • In doing this, you are not breaching any NHS guidance or regulations.
  • More information on this is provided in the Doctors of the World ‘Safe Surgeries’ toolkit, linked below.