Former health minister Lord Darzi has thrown his weight behind the pioneering care.data project but criticised ministers’ handling of how it has been presented to the public.

Lord Darzi, a minister under Gordon Brown and adviser to the coalition government on health, said the “extremely regrettable” furore surrounding the project could have been avoided.

In an exclusive article for HSJ, he called on ministers to acknowledge that there were risks attached to the project – even though, he says, they are considerably outweighed by the potential benefits.

He writes: “With more adroit handling, this is a row that might have been avoided.

“Ministers need to acknowledge the risks and ensure everything reasonable is done to protect individuals’ privacy, while explaining the good that sharing data could do for all patients.

“All health care innovations carry risks – think of the side effects caused by drugs - but they must be balanced against the benefits.

“In this case the risks (of a breach of confidentiality) are very low and the benefits potentially huge.”

Lord Darzi’s intervention follows NHS England director for patients and information Tim Kelsey telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that there was no risk of patients’ confidential information being identified as a result of care.data. 

Mr Kelsey said: “This data is stripped of all the identifiers, for example, name and address…postcode, NHS numbers, and in their place are substituted meaningless pseudonyms in order to link it to other data sets.

“Can I be categorical: no one who uses this data will know who you are.”

Mr Kelsey was backed by health secretary Jeremy Hunt who tweeted that it was an “excellent interview”.  

Lord Darzi, now director of the Institute of Global Health Innovation, Imperial College London, added in his article: “With the care.data project [the NHS could] gather information from GP records and use it to work out where care is going wrong - and where it is going right.”

“The NHS’s system of primary care provides a research database unrivalled anywhere in the world. We must embrace innovative ideas like these to secure the health we want.

“Mining the extraordinarily rich seams of data available, encouraging more patient engagement and utilising new technology to spread new ways of working to the country’s most distant outposts – these are the keys to the NHS’s survival.”

EXCLUSIVE: Darzi says care.data furore was avoidable