THE care.data programme designed to gather patient information from primary care practices in England has been delayed by six months.
The first data extractions were due to take place in April but these are now not expected to go ahead until the autumn.
This follows criticism from healthcare professionals and patient groups that not enough had been done to raise awareness of the scheme. The RCGP, BMA and Healthwatch England had all voiced concerns in recent weeks.
It was announced in October that £2 million would be spent on a publicity campaign in which all 22 million households in England were to be sent an information leaflet throughout January. Patients would then have four weeks to inform their GP if they wanted to opt out.
But NHS England has accepted that the publicity campaign needs to be improved and more time is needed to inform patients about how their personal details will be used.
Under the care.data programme, patient information will be gathered from various NHS providers and forwarded to the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) where it will be used by healthcare commissioners to assess the safety and quality of local services. The information can also be used by NHS organisations to plan and design better services.
The information extracted will be identifiable patient data from GP practices and hospitals. It can be shared in identifiable or anonymised forms to other parts of the NHS and to third parties such as researchers.
An NHS England spokesman said: "To ensure that the concerns are met, NHS England will begin collecting data from GP surgeries in the autumn, instead of April, to allow more time to build understanding of the benefits of using the information, what safeguards are in place, and how people can opt out if they choose to."
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, of the BMA's GP Committee, said: "We are pleased that NHS England has listened to the concerns. "With just weeks to go until the uploading of patient data was scheduled to begin, it was clear from GPs on the ground that patients remain inadequately informed about the implications of care.data."
Critics have also raised concerns at the prospect of all the information being kept in one place, with fears it could lead to data breaches.
Association of Medical Research Charities chief executive Sharmila Nebhrajani told BBC online any sharing of data "must be done with care, competence and consent".
She said: "Care that respects the sensitivity of the data, competence to ensure that information is held securely, and most importantly with the informed consent of the public."