Health Minister Greg Hunt has promised he will amend the My Health Record legislation to tighten privacy rules and allow permanent deletion of data for patients who quit the controversial scheme.
The backdown comes after a barrage of consent and confidentiality concerns, with many doctors saying a lack of transparency had killed off trust in the system, and opposition politicians seizing on it as an election issue.
In a crisis meeting held last night, Mr Hunt also pledged to consider an AMA request to extend the three-month opt-out period for patients by a month and agreed to launch a “robust” information campaign.
“I was very clear with the minister about this,” AMA President Dr Tony Bartone said today.
“I said there needed to be clear air, and all the assurances and the ambiguity removed, and then have the ability to start that three-month process.
“I’ve been assured that the legislative changes will be made very, very quickly to ensure that we can then start that – the information and the presentation of information to the public.”
Dr Bartone said it was a key outcome of last night’s meeting that Mr Hunt promised that “significant information, robust information” would be provided to allow patients to make an informed decision about the opt-out.
An extension of the opt-out period, which began on July 16, was needed to allow the public time to make full and frank consideration of the information and the utility of the electronic database for patients, he told ABC radio.
However, when asked if doctors were receiving help and advice to upgrade their computer systems, another point of contention regarding MHR security, Dr Bartone had little detail to give.
“We have protocols and procedures in place. We work with our providers in that space to ensure that everything is in compliance and in the utmost preparedness for any attack that we can envisage,” he said.
In a statement after the meeting, Mr Hunt said the MHR legislation would be redrafted to end “ambiguity” over whether police and government agencies could access patients’ information.
“No documents will be released without a court order,” Mr Hunt said in the statement.
“This will be enshrined in legislation, [which] will therefore remove any ambiguity on this matter.”
He said the changes would also allow a patient to vanish from the system: … “if someone wishes to cancel their record, they will be able to do so permanently, with their record deleted from the system”.
Mr Hunt said he would put the extension of the opt-out period to a Council of Australian Governments (COAG) health ministers meeting in Alice Springs on Thursday.
Queensland Health Minister Steven Miles wrote to Mr Hunt last week, accusing the government of ignoring public concerns about data security and warning he would push for a suspension of the MHR roll-out at tomorrow’s meeting.
In campaign appearances leading up to last Saturday’s by-elections, federal Labor Leader Bill Shorten repeatedly said the government was bungling the MHR roll-out and treating people as “mugs”.
“We’re not going to make this a political football, people’s private health records, but nor should the government. And … the Liberal government has got to stop treating Australians as mugs by pretending there’s not a problem here about how you properly protect people from having their information hacked,” he said.
RACGP President-elect Dr Harry Nespolon, who also attended the meeting, said Mr Hunt’s commitment to Australian patients was “a clear win and will enable confident and safe use of the system into the future”.
“I would like to thank and applaud Minister Hunt for listening to the RACGP’s – and our 38,000 members’ – concerns about the privacy of the system,” he said.
However, Labor’s health spokesperson Catherine King said today that Mr Hunt’s response would do little to allay community fears about privacy and security.
“Greg Hunt has completely bungled the My Health Record rollout, and he must do a great deal more to fully restore public trust in this important reform,” she said.
She said the proposed changes did not address new concerns that leaked My Health Record information could be used to trace women fleeing domestic violence and children who were subject to custody disputes.
While many doctors on social media today welcomed the minister’s promises as a good first step, questions remained about the legitimacy of informed consent by patients who were unaware of the My Health Record, the possible uses of their information and how to set access controls.
Other critics have raised concerns about the privacy of teenagers’ health information and possible impacts on their health care.