The federal government has promised doctors it will strengthen privacy provisions around its My Health Record scheme -- but how remains unclear.
Incoming president of the Royal Australian College of GPs (RACGP) Harry Nespolon said the assurance followed talks with Health Minister Greg Hunt earlier this week.
"The minister has agreed to work to satisfactorily strengthen the privacy provisions governing My Health Record, in regards to the legislation in line with government policy and practice," he said in a letter to members on Thursday.
Nespolon is concerned about the specific parts of the law which he believes "conflict with the aims of delivering good healthcare and improving health outcomes for all Australians".
"Confidentiality and the expectation of privacy is the cornerstone in the provision of healthcare," he said.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said on Thursday the government was committed to maintaining privacy of the system.
"If there are refinements or reassurances that need to be given, they will be given," he told reporters in Tasmania.
Speaking to journalists yesterday, Hunt dodged questions about why explicitly stating health data cannot be sold or handed over to the tax office has not been added to the My Health Record legislation.
"Well, there is actually very clear legislation in this space, it was laid down by the ALP in 2012. So, you'd need to ask them about their original legislation," Hunt said.
The health minister has continued to maintain his argument that the policy of ADHA to require a court order to release medical data will trump the legislation that allows data to be handed over to enforcement agencies.
The comments from the RACGP on Thursday are a shift in position from when the opt-out window opened.
"GPs hold patient privacy and confidentiality in the highest regard and medical records cannot be accessed or released to a third party without the patients consent unless there is a court order," a spokesperson for RACGP told ZDNet in response to a question on access to My Health Record by law enforcement last week.
"This applies equally to local clinic records and My Health Record."
ZDNet attempted to clarify with RACGP whether this was the college's understanding on how the laws worked, or an aspiration, but did not hear back.
The shift from RACGP follows on from Australian Medical Association president Dr Tony Bartone saying on Wednesday he wanted the discrepancy between Australian Digital Health Agency policy and what is currently law clarified.
"I will do whatever it takes to ensure that the ambiguity and any discrepancy between the legislation and what currently is the standard practice and what we all practice under is removed and put to bed once and for all," Bartone told the National Press Club. "Whatever it takes."
Bartone said the AMA and its members treat patient privacy as a paramount concern, and anything that compromised it would not be "withstood by our members".
The AMA still backed the utility of the system, believes it has clinical merit, and would help live up to patient expectations that doctors, hospitals, and other health providers were already connected, Bartone said.
"To the average patient or punter in the street, they think that we're all connected. They're surprised to hear that we still fax off referrals to the outpatient clinics. Fax, in this day and age," he said.
"Patients often say: 'Can I email you?' And I say: 'No, we don't have a secure messaging environment to facilitate that'. We need to move well into the 21st century.
"The My Health Record isn't the answer to everything. It is part of a wider solution."
The health minister confirmed he'd spoken with both Nespolon and Bartone about their concerns but wouldn't pre-empt the outcome of a meeting next week.
"I am always open to strengthening those protections to ensure people have complete confidence," he told reporters in Sydney.
Hunt also insisted it was illegal for insurance companies to access the information.
"Under no circumstances will any element of the record or the record itself be in any shape or form released without a court order."
Deputy Labor Leader Tanya Plibersek called on the government to make clear the rules around police accessing online My Health Records.
"When the health minister says the police can't access the record without going to a court but the police say they can, it's a problem," she told ABC radio on Thursday morning.
Plibersek is one of 6 million Australians who already has a digital My Health Record and won't be joining her colleague Ed Husic and Liberal opponent Tim Wilson who have opted out.
The deputy ALP leader also clarified Bill Shorten's call yesterday for a "suspension" of My Health Record was merely a repeating of its earlier call for the opt-out window to be extended.
"No, not that the record should be suspended," Plibersek said. "There have been some calls that the reversing of the opt-out/opt-in position should be slowed down or suspended."
Labor is maintaining its support of My Health Record, which it kicked off under the personally controlled e-health records moniker.
Once the Coalition took power in 2013, a review commissioned by former Health Minister Peter Dutton recommended that the system be made opt-out, so that unless patients objected to it, their health records would be added into the system.
In September 2015, the personally controlled e-health record was renamed to My Health Record.