THOUSANDS of people in Northumberland have opted out of sharing their medical records for healthcare research and planning, figures show.

The sharing of patient data is 'vital' to research into life-changing illnesses including cancer, diabetes and long Covid and has been pivotal in developing responses to the coronavirus pandemic, according to NHS digital.

Their figures show that 16,646 people in Northumberland had signed up to the national data opt-out scheme by September 1.

Figures on the type one opt-outs are not available, meaning the number of patients who have chosen not to share their health records may be higher.

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NHS Digital figures show 6,635 patients in the area signed up to the scheme, which first launched in 2018, between May and September this year alone, 40% of the total.

They were among more than a million people to do so across England over the same period, meaning more than 3 million patients have now set a data opt-out.

A stark rise in sign-ups to the existing NHS data opt-out scheme came after campaigners and groups, including the Royal College of General Practitioners, expressed concern over proposals to introduce a new data collection process in England.

It was scheduled to start in July, but was put on hold following widespread criticism.

Professor Martin Marshall, chairman of the Royal College of GPs said the figures showing increasing numbers of patients signing up to the national data opt-out scheme were unsurprising given the confusion surrounding the GDPR programme.

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A spokesperson for NHS Digital said medical research and planning benefits everyone but is "only as good as the data it is based on" as she urged patients to ensure they are making an informed decision about whether to share medical records.

She said the NHS took its data safeguarding responsibilities seriously and that data collected would only ever be used by organisations with a legitimate need to access it.