NHS could publish prescription details for every GP practice
Information on the 900million medicine prescriptions written out each year by England’s doctors, currently only seen by certain NHS staff, could be made available to the public online.
A little-noticed section of HM Treasury’s Plan for Growth discloses the move as part of initiatives to improve research and health by providing more detailed evidence of illness and treatment.
In a one-line section headed “Opening up prescription data”, the document states: “Government will look to publish prescribing data at practice level subject to an evaluation and impact assessment by the NHS Information Centre.”
But the NHS Information Centre, which publishes statistics on the health service, ruled out the idea just two years ago.
Consultation documents state that the issue was raised after “a number of requests for such data from commercial companies”.
Local data on prescriptions is already collected in order to reimburse chemists and dispensing doctors for the £8billion of medicines they prescribe each year.
But only Primary Care Trusts, the tier of management currently above GPs, can access figures for surgeries in their area, and only the total number of prescriptions for each practice is made public, not the nature of the drugs given out.
The NHS Information Centre said in 2008 that “commercial companies will have significant potential benefits in obtaining access to this data”, by analysing it then presenting it to managers “at a cost to the NHS”.
But it warned of several possible risks, including the identification of practices “providing services for ‘sensitive’ conditions such as emergency hormonal contraception, HIV, drug addiction, Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia etc”.
This could lead to “lobbying by patient support groups” and “the pharmaceutical industry”.
Publication of data in remote areas could even lead to the identification of individual GPs or patients with rare conditions.
Patients would also be able to compare the number of highly sought-after treatments such as IVF prescribed in different areas, prompting claims of a postcode lottery.
The consultation goes on: “Practices, prescribers and the NHS may face increased targeting from the pharmaceutical industry.”
It says “it may not be in the best interests of the NHS or the public to disclose raw data due to the potential for it to be misleading”.
In 2009 the Information Centre decided “that open release of detailed practice level data is inappropriate and not permitted”, after NHS respondents to the consultation said there was “no need” for wider distribution.
It is possible the Department of Health will refine its plans to make the data available only to researchers.
A separate section in the Plan for Growth says the NHS “could offer unique opportunities for this country’s international competitiveness in health research” by using “anonymised data sets and aggregated prescription data linked down to GP practice level” in a “secure data service”.
It concedes: “That can happen only if there is robust protection for individual patients’ confidentiality and privacy.”
Former mayor sentenced for online pharmaceutical drug sales
A well-known Miami-Dade lawyer who pleaded guilty to selling tens of millions in pharmaceutical drugs without prescriptions on an Internet site serving buyers across the country was sentenced to 40 months by a federal judge in California on Thursday.
Robert Smoley, a former mayor of North Bay Village who has represented numerous high-profile clients during his career, admitted he and others distributed in excess of $48 million worth of drugs through his company, United Mail Pharmacy Services.
Federal agents say the 59-year-old attorney set up an elaborate distribution network from a warehouse in Florida, where he and others shipped drugs after taking orders over the Internet and call centers in Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic. Smoley admitted to selling more than seven million pills through more 17 online pharmacy sites – with most of the orders between 2001 and 2008.
“The Smoley drug trafficking organization fed the habits of drug seekers while its members chose profits over the health and well-being of those customers,” said DEA special agent Anthony Williams after Smoley’s guilty plea.
The onetime mayor took orders from customers who filled out online orders for medications, but no effort was made to ensure the information they provided was accurate, the plea agreement says.
The orders were then reviewed by doctors who were paid between $2 and $5 per order, with some doctors approving up to 500 orders per day.
Smoley admitted to encouraging doctors to review as many orders as possible each day, knowing they did not conduct physical exams – or review medical paperwork – for his customers.
For years, he managed to conceal the millions his organization reaped by shifting the money through various accounts set up at U.S. banks, court records state.
CAUGHT IN 2008
Though he had been under investigation for several years by federal agents in California, he was finally caught in early 2008 when he ordered more than half a million drugs from an undercover DEA agent.
He pleaded guilty before federal Judge Jeffrey White in San Francisco in November to conspiracy to distribute schedule III and IV controlled substances and conspiracy to launder money.
A practicing attorney since 1978, Smoley served as mayor of North Bay Village from 1980 to 1982, but left office after a controversial term in which citizens waged a recall effort against him and two commissioners.
His most high profile case came in 1991 when he represented Jeff and Kathy Willets, the Fort Lauderdale couple who made international news when they set up a $2,000 a week sex business out of their home, servicing the city’s vice mayor and others.
Over the course of his 33-year career, he also represented several high-power officials, including Dade Circuit Court Judge Alfonso Sepe during a bitter judicial race in 1982.
Miami lawyer Richard Sharpstein, who represented Smoley during his drug case, said his client opened his business “fully believing that the Internet pharmacy was legal. Unfortunately for him, over the past five years the government has reversed its position and he was caught in the web.”
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