Health Minister Greg Hunt has promised tougher privacy protections for the government's controversial national online records scheme

Greg Hunt
  • The Australian government is creating a national online database known as My Health Record, capable of storing your entire medical history.
  • Growing concerns about the ability of government agencies to access the information without a warrant led Health Minister Greg Hunt to announcement changes to the legislation to increase privacy.
  • People have until October 15 if they want to opt out of the system, but the minister may extend that deadline by another month.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt will toughen laws around who can access the My Health Record system, as well as giving people greater control over removing the information in a bid to fend off growing privacy concerns about the online medical database.

Hunt met with senior officials from the Australian Medical Association (AMA) and College of GPs on Tuesday night, two key groups who’d raised concerns about protecting patient information, and announced the changes following the meeting.

An amendment to the six-year-old legislation will mean police and other government agencies will need a court order to access the files, while the records will be deleted immediately if someone opts out. Under existing arrangements the records would have been retained online regardless, including after the patient had died, even if they had withdrawn from the system.

While doctors were eager to see the scheme implemented, they were also at the forefront of those raising privacy issues. Even the Parliamentary Library raised concerns, leading to intervention from Hunt’s department.

The minister said that while the existing legislation was not a problem, he wanted to offer additional reassurances on privacy.

“The amendment will ensure no record can be released to police or government agencies, for any purpose, without a court order,” Hunt said in a statement.

“The Digital Health Agency’s policy is clear and categorical – no documents have been released in more than six years and no documents will be released without a court order. This will be enshrined in legislation.

“This change to the My Health Record Act will therefore remove any ambiguity on this matter.”

While around six million people had opted into the My Health Record scheme in the six years since it was first introduced by Labor in 2012, the Turnbull government was moving to automatically create an electronic health file for every Australian unless they opted out by October 15.

Hunt is also considering whether to extend the opt out period for an extra month, telling ABC radio this morning that medical groups had asked for the extension and “I am disposed to that”. He said he will discuss the matter with his state ministerial colleagues over the next few days.

The key sticking point was a part of the legislation that only required a “reasonable belief” by authorities that access to someone’s health data was necessary to prevent, detect, investigate or prosecute a criminal offence, and that it did not specifically state that a court order was necessary.

Prominent government backbencher Tim Wilson, a former Human Rights Commissioner, was among those who announced they would opt out of the system in the last fortnight. Today he welcomed the changes, without saying whether he will change his mind.

AMA president Dr Tony Bartone, who met with the minister last night, said the changes announced by Hunt met with the concerns of doctors.

“This system is still in evolution, but is better than what we currently have in terms of collating and coordinating a summary of all the medical data in various parts of the system,” he told the ABC.

“After the assurances we received last night and the commitment to strengthen the legislation, we can now move forward and have certainty around the protections to the privacy of those records that our patients expect.”

National Rural Health Alliance CEO Mark Diamond said the changes address his organisation’s fears that the records could be accessed by agencies such as the Tax Office and Centrelink without a court order.

“Even though the Australian Digital Health Agency says that would never happen, and importantly it never has happened, the legislation did not make that clear,” he said.

“My Health Record always promised compelling health benefits, especially for people living in rural and remote areas. Now there are even more reasons to embrace the system.”

While the changes announced by Hunt overnight address fears of Big Brother-style interventions by government departments, they don’t tackle claims by privacy experts that a data breach is “inevitable” with more than 900,000 people in the sector able to access the information.

Figures from the June quarter released by the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner revealed that the private health sector topped the list for data breach notifications over the three months, with health accounting for 49 of 242 data breaches, just ahead of the finance sector with 36.

However, the commissioner noted that the latest breaches don’t relate to the My Health Records system.

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