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The agency behind the roll-out of the government’s My Health Record scheme has been caught out misrepresenting the views of Australia’s peak GP body, claiming incorrectly that the group supported adoption of the centralised digital health record’s controversial opt-out approach.

It comes as Labor’s spokesperson for health Catherine King urged the Turnbull government to extend the opt-out period beyond three months “so the government can launch a comprehensive information campaign to educate the public and restore their trust in this reform”.

It also comes as the Turnbull government lost support of opt-out not only from its own backbencher Tim Wilson, but also Labor backbencher Pat Conroy, who said at the weekend he had “zero confidence” in the system’s implementation. Wilson said all systems, such as My Health Record, “should be opt-in and people should be able to freely choose to opt in to a system rather than have to go through the process of opting out”.

On Monday last week, the Australian Digital Health Agency (ADHA) issued a statement claiming “Australia’s peak GP, pharmacy, and healthcare bodies support My Health Record and the government’s decision to move the system to an opt out model”, listing various groups below it which included Australia’s peak GP body, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP).

But when asked if it supported opt-out, the RACGP initially said in a statement: “The RACGP has never established a position on My Health Record being an opt-in or opt-out service.”

Shortly after I put the RACGP’s response to Health Minister Greg Hunt’s office on Friday, who reiterated the RACGP’s incorrect statement of support of opt-out, the peak GP body contacted the author to issue an additional statement “clarifying our position”, which said: “The RACGP has never said that it does not support the opt out model of My Health Record.”

It is understood the clarification only came after an intervention from the Health Minister’s office.

It also comes as the agency behind the health file deleted from its website a media release issued on July 14 accusing a News Corp journalist’s reporting about My Health Record of being “factually incorrect and misleading”, “false”, “fear-mongering” and “ignorant”.

The news article ADHA attacked, authored by health reporter Sue Dunlevy, highlighted concerns about who has access to an individual’s My Health Record; how de-identified data can be used for research purposes unless you opt-out of secondary use; who can upload data to your record; and how data can in certain circumstances be put on your file without your fully informed consent.

But after a letter was sent on Friday by News Corp’s editorial counsel Michael Cameron suggesting ADHA had defamed Dunlevy, the agency retracted the release from its website.

“I write to condemn the vile and baseless attack on the integrity of Ms Dunlevy by the Australian Digital Health Agency in a statement published on its website,” News Corp’s lawyer Cohen said in the letter entitled “Defamation of Sue Dunlevy”, a copy of which has been seen by Crikey.

“The agency is entitled to robustly defend its record but it is not entitled to engage in a malicious act of personal defamation by falsely claiming a journalist deliberately engaged in factually incorrect and misleading reporting. We demand that the statement containing these defamatory imputations is removed immediately,” Cohen said, before adding that Ms Dunlevy’s article was “demonstrably” true based on information on its website and that provided by the ADHA.

“The agency’s critique is not only defamatory of Ms Dunlevy but it fails the most perfunctory factual analysis. It defames Ms Dunlevy by accusing her of dangerous fear-mongering …” he said.

The ADHA confirmed that it removed the statement but declined to respond to questions about whether it stood by the July 14 media release; why it was removed from its site; whether it conceded the allegations it made were incorrect; who the release was distributed to; what was inaccurate about Ms Dunlevy’s reporting; and whether it had apologised to Ms Dunlevy.

“The agency received a legal letter at 5pm on Friday,” an agency spokesman confirmed. “It is seeking its own legal advice and will be responding in due course.”

The Monday media release incorrectly suggesting the RACGP’s support of My Health Record’s adoption of opt-out remained on the agency’s website as of Sunday afternoon without change.

Broadly, the RACGP said it supported My Health Record.

“The RACGP has committed to encouraging GPs to adopt the use of the My Health Record system into daily practice and is providing information to GPs about the MHR to ensure their broad understanding,” a spokeswoman said. “The RACGP has always supported the calls for a national electronic health record, dating back to our 2016 position statement.”

“The RACGP understands that in order for the system to work effectively in terms of achieving improved health outcomes, there is a critical mass that must be reached. And for public confidence to be built in the use of electronic records.”

“In this instance an opt-out system provides that number.”

Peter Fray

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