Doctors have warned that benefit claimants could be deterred from accessing healthcare after it emerged that the government is to start accessing medical records as part of the welfare assessment process.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is in the process of creating a system to more quickly access people’s health data to help them to determine how much welfare support they are entitled to, including automating “routine” requests for medical information.

GPs and charities said the plans resemble the controversial data-sharing scheme between the Home Office and the NHS, which prompted outrage after it emerged some immigrants were subsequently afraid to access healthcare, ultimately forcing the government to end the policy.

A job advert posted by the DWP shows that a team in Leeds is building a system to “capture information from citizens and present this to DWP agents”. The work is proceeding on the assumption that the consent of patients would make the system lawful, although this has not been confirmed.

In response, Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs, expressed concern that the process would damage the doctor-patient relationship, and “deter vulnerable people from seeking medical assistance when they need it”.

“We do not hold our patients’ confidential data to help other organisations check their eligibility for welfare, their immigration status, or any other function not related to their health and wellbeing,” she said.

“If the reports are true, the DWP, like the Home Office before them, must not consider GP patient data as an open resource to support them to carry out their duties. We are doctors, whose first interest is the care of our patient: we are not border guards, and we are not benefits assessors.”

Head of policy and profile at Law Centres Network, Nimrod Ben-Cnaan, said the sharing of people’s medical records would breach patient confidentiality and put GPs and other medical staff in the “invidious” position of benefits assessors.

“Less than a year ago, the government decided that even its hostile environment policies did not justify sharing migrants’ personal data between NHS and the Home Office, except in very specific circumstances,” he added.

“Now, however, the government plans to share NHS patient data of people who claim health-related benefits with DWP, and to do so automatically. What has changed?

“It is legally and ethically questionable […] We call on Parliament to take an urgent look at this programme and other planned sharing of NHS patient data with other public bodies.”

Genevieve Edwards, director of external affairs at the MS Society, said that while it was encouraging that the DWP was looking at ways to change the evidence gathering process, the proposals were being considered with an “apparent lack of engagement and transparency”. 

“Rather than the DWP or assessors being able to automatically access records, we’d want to see a system which would allow GPs to send data on request, with the patient’s informed consent at every step in the process,” she said.