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NHS trust fined £180k for email error

A London NHS trust has been fined after revealing the email addresses of more than 700 users of an HIV service. 56 Dean Street, a Soho-based sexual health clinic, offered a service to patients with HIV to receive test results and make appointments by email. Patients using the service also received an occasional newsletter. A small number of people who received the newsletter did not have HIV.

An error meant that anyone receiving the September newsletter could see the email addresses of all the other recipients. Addresses had been wrongly entered into the ‘to’ field instead of the ‘bcc’ field, and 730 of the 781 email addresses contained people’s full name.

Chelsea and Westminster Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, which runs the clinic, has been fined £180,000 by the data protection watchdog the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), after the ICO found there had been a serious breach of the Data Protection Act, which was likely to have caused substantial distress.

Information Commissioner Christopher Graham said: “People’s use of a specialist service at a sexual health clinic is clearly sensitive personal data. The law demands this type of information is handled with particular care following clear rules, and put simply, this did not happen. It is clear that this breach caused a great deal of upset to the people affected. The clinic served a small area of London, and we know that people recognised other names on the list, and feared their own name would be recognised too. That our investigation found this wasn’t the first mistake of this type by the Trust only adds to what was a serious breach of the law.”

The ICO found the trust had made a similar error in March 2010, when a member of staff in the pharmacy department sent a questionnaire to 17 patients in relation to their HIV treatment, entering emails in the ‘to’ field instead of the ‘bcc’ field. While some remedial measures were put in place following this mistake, there was no specific training implemented. The fine will be paid into HM Treasury’s Consolidated Fund and is not kept by the Information Commissioner’s Office.

Christopher Graham said: “The Trust was quick to apologise for their mistake, and has undertaken substantial remedial work since the breach. Nevertheless, it is crucial that the senior managers at NHS Trusts understand the requirements of data protection law, and the serious consequences that follow when that law is broken.”


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