The Information Commissioner (ICO) has clarified its position and warned insurers that using rights in the Data Protection Act (DPA) to access patients' entire medical record is ‘inappropriate and an abuse of that right'.
The British Medical Association has advised GPs to not send information from patients' records to insurers when requests are made under the DPA but to instead direct insurers to ask for a GP's Report.
The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has however told GPs that contrary to the BMA's advice, GPs are still obliged to respond to subject access requests made under the DPA.
The Information Commissioner's Office said in a statement: "We recognise that insurance companies may have a genuine need to review medical information about its customers when providing policies like life and critical illness cover.
"To enable this, the Access to Medical Reports Act 1988 gives insurance companies a clear and established legal route to access medical information.
"The Act also gives appropriate safeguards to patients and respects the confidential relationship between a GP and their patient.
"Under the Act, a GP can provide a tailored report to an insurer, with their patient's consent, setting out only the information the insurer needs.
The statement from the ICO continued: "However, some insurance companies have instead been looking to rely on the subject access right given to consumers under the Data Protection Act in order to obtain medical records, rather than a tailored GP's report.
"A subject access request gives an individual the right to ask for all of the personal information an organisation holds about them.
The ICO said: "This is a powerful right, designed to ensure individuals can access information held about them within a specified time period and at a nominal cost.
"This right was not designed to underpin the commercial processes of insurers.
"By making a subject access request on a patient's behalf, an insurance company may be provided with a patient's entire medical record, including information that is not relevant for the purpose of underwriting a policy.
"The ICO has recently written to the insurance industry to explain that we consider that the use of subject access rights in this way is inappropriate and an abuse of that right.
The ICO added: "We also have concerns that the processing of medical records by insurers once received from GPs is likely to breach the Data Protection Act.
"We will be speaking to the insurance sector further to ensure that future use of medical records is in line with the law.
"Patients continue to be able to make subject access requests to their GP.
"GPs have ethical obligations around how patient records are shared, and we advise GPs to explain to patients, in broad terms, the implications of making a subject access request so they can make a more informed decision on whether they wish to exercise their rights under the Data Protection Act.
"We also recommend GPs share any responses to subject access requests directly with patients, rather than to insurance companies."
The ICO has also disagreed with comments made by the British Medical Association.
It said: "Contrary to comments made by the British Medical Association, GPs must still respond to subject access requests, in accordance with the guidance published on our website.
"The right to see personal information held about you by an organisation is an important one, and one from which GPs are not exempt.
"We will be speaking with the British Medical Association again to further clarify this."