UK Government Proposes Using NHS Data To Fuel Technology Innovation

The Sunday Telegraph yesterday warned us that Prime Minister David Cameron was about to unveil proposals under which patient data could be sold to the private sector in order to be used in the quest for better and more accurately targeted medical technologies. Health Minister Andrew Lansley was this morning being wheeled around studios to explain the concept, but not before the predictable furore among privacy campaigners.

In a speech delivered today Cameron unveiled the plans which ministers argue would support research and innovation and improve quality of care and life.

“The end-game is for the NHS to be working hand-in-glove with industry as the fastest adopter of new ideas in the world,”

That would act as a “huge magnet to pull new innovations through, right along the food-chain – from the labs, to the boardrooms, to the hospital bed”.

Science minister David Willetts told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that, at the moment, research funded by the Medical Research Council often sat in research institutes without being used to benefit patients.

“They then face the so-called ‘valley of death’ when the research has been done but there isn’t necessarily the proof of concept or the proof of market that would enable a venture capitalist to invest, and it’s a long, shaky, perilous path to being commercialised and available in the NHS,” he said.

The UK’s healthcare industry already employs 160,000 people in 4,500 companies, with a turnover of £50bn a year. Clearly the initiative is aimed at the pharmaceutical sector, but it would seem entirely logical that it should also apply to the medical devices sector, a thriving industry in the UK with a highly successful SME base across the country.

What is not well acknowledged is that huge amounts of patient data are already published. For example every single operation is logged and available online to the extent that precise numbers of procedures performed over several years are available, over seven thousand types of procedure. From 197 amputations of duplicate thumbs(from 112 males and 5 females), to 1 skin donation, it’s all there to see and to date we’re not aware that anyone has been compromised as a result. The opposition Labour party have said they will not allow Mr Cameron to “throw away essential safeguards” in his desperation to develop a credible industrial strategy. Indeed, but why on earth would he want to do that anyway? Just imagine the political fallout if after the huge reassurances the government would have to give on order for this to progress Auntie Nellie’s ingrowing toenail became headline news.

The debate will now revolve around what the safeguards should be, most especially to protect the anonymity of people undergoing unusual procedures for whom the publication of postcode data might well form part of a jigsaw with which identify them. Again though, industry is not likely to baulk at measures to protect minority cases if its goal is to identify and exploit significant commercial opportunities.

Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham has adopted his man-of-the-people tone by blustering about anonymity and fuelling the fire of the privacy and civil liberties groups. Contrastingly the Shadow Business Secretary Chukka Umunna has adopted a slightly more measured tone by welcoming the changes to the Government’s strategy on the NHS, but he too warns that information on patients must be safeguarded. Pragmatic and predictable perhaps, but a good deal less politically inflammatory than his pal in Health.

The bigger question of course is whether this initiative has much real value, let alone being the game-changer it’s being advertised as. The debate will no doubt grind on and more will become clear in the days to come, so medlatest will keep an eye on it.  What’s clear is that for the NHS to be labelled “fastest adopter in the world” would be both welcome and game changing.

Source: medlatest staff