Prague - It was one of the biggest projects in the Czech health care sector: The State Institute for Drug Control (SÚKL) was to collect information about all Czech patients and put it on the internet.
The data was collected in pharmacies when patients picked up prescriptions. A huge database of all medicines that patients have ever swallowed started to emerge. It was possible to find out who suffers from what disease and what medicines doctors prescribed them.
The project has cost roughly CZK 170 million to date. The institute was to pay a further CZK 90 million a year for operating the database.
Now, after eight months of work, the institute must halt work on the project and immediately destroy the data it has collected. Collecting the information turns out to have been illegal, Aktuálně.cz learnt from a report on the central electronic prescriptions register issued by the Office for Personal Data Protection.
Inspectors who examined the register criticised several things. The most important finding is that the SÚKL should never have collected the data in the first place. It was supposed to establish the register for a completely different reason: to help introduce electronic prescriptions this year for patients undergoing lengthy treatments.
The plan would have relieved patients of the need to go to the doctor for each prescription. Their doctors would send a unique code, the electronic equivalent of a prescription, to their mobile phones. The patients would then give the code to the pharmacist and the medicine would be ready in the electronic system.
But the SÚKL has not launched the electronic prescriptions system. "The issuing of electronic prescriptions has not been implemented so far," the Office for Personal Data Protection report says.
Instead, the SÚKL was using the register in a different way. It ordered pharmacies to add to the registry all data on ordinary prescriptions. This data includes birth certificate numbers, codes of patients' medicines, and information on the doctors and pharmacists who prescribed and dispensed the medicines.
More data was added to the register when patients bought pain killers and anti-flu drugs containing pseudoephedrine — drugs like Modafen, Nurofen stop grip, Panadol plus grip, and Paralen plus. As of April, customers who want to buy these drugs must show their ID or insurance card.
In commercial hands
The report also warns that the company Aquasoft had access to the most sensitive patient data. The State Institute for Drug Control, which claims it needs the information to monitor the side effects of medicines, does not. "It does not have the necessary software for communication with the central register," the report says.
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Despite that, the State Institute for Drug Control says it is doing nothing illegal.
"It is the other way round. We use the central register to meet our legal duty, that means, to produce analyses of medicine consumption in the Czech Republic as a source for the optimisation of the medical policy," SÚKL head Martin Beneš told Aktuálně.cz.
The register will enable the SÚKL to better analyse the effects of medicines and to protect people's health, he added.
Nonetheless the institute suspended the so-called patient accounts on Monday. On these accounts, patients could check how much medicine they have consumed and whether they have exceeded a set limit. They could also learn there when to go for the next preventive medical examination or for vaccination.
Data collection continues
"We just want to reassure patients. They were alarmed when they learnt that their sensitive data was in danger," SÚKL spokeswoman Veronika Petláková said. The institute plans to relaunch the accounts as soon as possible. It plans to appeal the report's findings and believes it will succeed.
Pharmacists say that, officially, the data collection continues.
"We recommend pharmacies stop providing the SÚKL with data on dispensed medicines. We also recommend all pharmacies dispense preparations containing with pseudoephedrine on prescription only," the Czech Chamber of Pharmacies said in a press release. Otherwise pharmacies could be violating law as well, the chamber said.
Adapted by the Prague Daily Monitor.