General practitioners have successfully lobbied to have part of the Privacy Act amended so that patient information may be shared "without consent" to identify "prescription shoppers".
Complaints lodged by GPs have led to some privacy restrictions being relaxed under the Health Insurance Commission's Prescription Shopping Project.
As part of the project, the HIC has developed an information service to disclose, on request, certain health information about some individuals to doctors.
The information relates to whether or not a patient has been identified by the HIC as a "prescription shopper". Information is sent to the doctor about medications prescribed under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.
Before the amendments, information which GPs sought under the project breached elements of the National Privacy Principles of the Privacy Act.
As a consequence, two new determinations have been added to the Privacy Act allowing GPs to collect health information from the HIC information service without patient consent.
Privacy Commissioner Karen Curtis said the need for GPs to have access to this information without consent outweighed privacy concerns.
"I expect that in the majority of cases a doctor will seek the consent of their patients before collecting health information from the HIC's information service," Curtis said.
"The information being collected from the service may be critical in forming clinical judgement in the treatment of some patients and without these [changes to the Privacy Act] the collection of this information without consent may have left doctors potentially in the breach of the Privacy Act.
"[There was also advice] that a small group of individuals may be unwilling to give their consent, even though the information held by the HIC's information service could be critical in treating them ... the collection of this health information can immediately and directly affect the health care of some individuals in a beneficial way," Curtis said.