Apr 6, 2014
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DATA PROTECTION ACT 1998

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This legislation puts into effect the UK European Directive 95/46/EC on the processing of personal data, whether paper or computer records. The Act is based on eight principles, the first of which stipulates that ‘personal data shall be processed fairly and lawfully’. Unfortunately this phrase is open to different interpretations. Clarification is required to determine how the common-law duty of confidentiality affects the health services in the context of using data obtained from patients for research work, especially epidemiological studies (see EPIDEMIOLOGY). Health authorities, trusts and primary care groups in the NHS have appointed ‘Caldicott guardians’ – named after a review of information that identifies patients. A prime responsibility of the guardians is to agree and review internal protocols for the protection and use of identifiable information obtained from patients. The uncertainties over the interpretation of the legislation require clarification, but some experts have suggested a workable solution: to protect patients’ rights, researchers should ensure that data are fully anonymised whenever possible; they should also agree their project design with those responsible for data protection well in advance of its planned starting date. (See ETHICS.)

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