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Sharing information with the police to help trace missing persons: the process considerations and legal basis

Enabling police to access a person’s health and social care information quickly and efficiently can be crucial when trying to trace a missing person. The concept of sharing data in relation to missing persons’ cases is well established. However, when information requests are received, NHS organisations, GPs and other healthcare providers can struggle to navigate decisions about confidentiality, and when it is appropriate to make a person’s data available to the police (and—if they do share it—on what legal basis they are able to do so). Decisions aren’t always black and white, and organisations frequently seek an opinion from the UK Caldicott Guardian Council (UKCGC). 

The UKCGC recognised that there was a need for clearer, more consistent advice from an authoritative source in respect of patient data sharing for potential homicide investigations, proof of life enquiries and more general enquiries to trace missing persons. To this end, UKCGC Vice Chair, Sandra Lomax met with Joe Apps of the National Crime Agency’s UK Missing Persons Unit, and together they embarked upon a project to develop joint guidance – for the benefit of both the individuals making the requests, and those receiving them.

Sandra explains, “Allowing the police to access appropriate patient information is vital to support the risk assessment process and help them locate a missing person. In many cases those missing are vulnerable, ‘at risk’ individuals. The UKCGC wanted to ensure that it was doing all it could to help health and care to help the police – in turn supporting better outcomes for the missing person.”

Missing persons investigations will always have a safeguarding or public protection element, as ‘being missing’ is an indicator of something that is wrong in someone’s life. ‘Going missing’ is often a consequence of harm or an escape from harm, as well as being harmful in itself. Some harms may be short-lived, but others can extend over time, especially for those who are victims of crime and abuse and those who are living with mental health challenges. As such, time can be of the essence when requests are made, and organisations must act quickly.

The UKCGC and the UK Missing Persons Unit have published formal guidance that outlines the good practice considerations that should be borne in mind when information is being sought from health and care. It makes clear the sort of information that the police should provide upfront, and also describes the legal bases that underpin and allow such information sharing – which some organisations can find it difficult to establish.

Joe said, “I have welcomed the opportunity to work with the UKCGC to make this process clearer. This joint approach has helped to shine a light on what happens behind the scenes in health and care when a request for information is made, and what the police can do better upfront to make it easier for health and care to provide the information needed to progress the missing persons case. Better partnership working, and taking the time to understand each other’s viewpoints and organisational cultures, is one significant way that we can get better at supporting those who are missing.”

Read the guidelines

Chris Bunch