Scottish hospitals deny clerics access to patients’ records

NSS Newsline March 27 th 2009
Tuesday 31 March 2009
popularity : 1%

A hospital authority in Scotland is refusing to allow clergy people to consult admittance lists to find out if any of their parishioners are in hospital. The hospitals say that allowing priests and ministers access to patient lists would breach privacy regulations.

A spokesman for the Catholic Church criticised the ban and said patients were now forced to carry cards flagging up their religion to receive "spiritual care".

Clerics in the Glasgow region used to have the right to find out whether their parishioners were being treated in hospital, but now the health board’s information governance officer instructed the staff who keep records not to pass on ward lists. They say it may contravene the Data Protection Act 1998.

Scottish government guidance to health boards attempts to strike a balance between the right to "spiritual care" and patient confidentiality. It states: "NHS boards should ensure the right of patients to be visited (or not visited) by a chaplain or their faith/belief representative by incorporating flexibility into the means of obtaining informed consent to spiritual care both at the time of admission and during a patient’s time of treatment."

While NHS Greater Glasgow has withdrawn access to patient lists, NHS Ayrshire and Arran allows local clergy to visit their parishioners after completing a vetting procedure. NHS Grampian is currently reviewing its system.

A spokesman for NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde told The Herald newspaper: "We take patient confidentiality extremely seriously and the fact that a person is in hospital is a private matter and it cannot be assumed that they would wish this information to be shared with anyone, including representatives from a church or faith community."

He added: "No NHS board in Scotland should provide full patient lists to any religious or spiritual groups. To give full lists of patients along with details of their beliefs or religion is deemed as a clear breach of the Data Protection Act 1998 and a breach of patient confidentiality."

However, a spokesperson for the Catholic Church said: "There is a difference between the need to protect an individual’s bank details being handed out and that of a cleric’s need to find out if one of their flock is in need of spiritual aid. The health board’s stated aim of providing spiritual care to patients is utterly beyond its remit – in fact, Greater Glasgow’s policy actively prevents its patients receiving spiritual care."

He added: "A priest would never go into a hospital and say they are an expert on medical matters, so why are Greater Glasgow claiming they know what’s best for a patient’s spiritual care? People are having to carry cards saying ’I am a Catholic’ in order to get access to a chaplain."

Glasgow MSP Patrick Harvie, an honorary associate of the National Secular Society, said: "I’m astonished to find that personal information was being given out on this basis, and Glasgow Health Board’s decision to overturn it is therefore very welcome. Notional membership of a religious organisation cannot be allowed to trump patient confidentiality. If a patient wishes to see a priest, a rabbi, an imam or a humanist celebrant, they can and should be helped to do so, but it must be their choice and their choice alone."


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