Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Thursday, June 30, 2022

UK’s NHS Faces Scrutiny as Medical Data Goes Public 

With the goal of going paperless by 2018, the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) has set its sights on an ambitious goal. But as means to that end is an objective that’s met with more resistance: making all patient data transparent.

In 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron made the announcement that every NHS patient would also be considered a “research patient,” with the reasoning that opening up such vast amounts of data would be invaluable to improving healthcare in the United Kingdom.

“This is the real world evidence that scientists have been crying out for,” said Cameron.

But not surprisingly, not everyone embraced the idea.

Namely, General practitioner Dr. Hadrian Moss, a proponent of bringing big data to healthcare, has criticized his government’s implementation of the system, noting that instead of seeking permission, the government assumes permission unless a patient says otherwise.

But Moss, one of six doctors at a NHS practice serving roughly 12,500 people, notes how valuable making this information available can be.

“Really, as soon as the patient walks in the door, I’ll have already looked at their medical record, previous consultations, results, and any investigations,” he says. “Everything is instantly available on the computer screen.”

But when the networking that shares this information can bridge the gaps between hospitals and private practices, the results can be fatal.

According to Jeremy Hunt, the UK’s health secretary heading the NHS, in the last year alone 11 patients died because they were given the wrong medication. And while going digital won’t solve the problem completely, he says that it will help.

But beyond the UK’s borders, NHS England’s first director for patients and information, Tim Kelsey, says that opening up these data to the outside world will have an even greater benefit.

“Open data is the most important thing we’re going to be doing in our generation in terms of improving healthcare,” Kelsey says. “I fundamentally believe transparency is going to transform both quality and the experience that patients have of their care and the cost of the NHS.”

Still, those who have concerns about patient privacy in the age of electronic medical records are less optimistic.

“The data that is being extracted from doctors’ records… won’t include the patient’s name and address, but it will include their postcode, their age, their date of birth, their gender, their ethnicity,” says Martyn Thomas of the Institution of Engineering and Technology’s information technology policy panel. “In many cases that alone is enough to re-identify the individual.”

Despite both Thomas’ and Moss’ hopes for what the data can deliver, both are hoping that the new NHS opt-out rule can be reversed in order to protect patients who would dismiss the government’s consent letter the same way they’d throw out junk mail.

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