NHS staff ‘uncomfortable with tech giants handling patient data’

NHS staff feel uncomfortable with the prospect of multinational big tech companies analysing patient data, according to a new survey

This is an edited version of an article first published by Digital Health.

A YouGov poll of 1,027 healthcare professionals, commissioned by Sensyne Health, found that 81% supported the analysis of anonymised data to enable quicker diagnosis and more effective treatment for patients.

More than eight in 10 (85%) said they felt the NHS should receive a fair share of any financial gains made from subsequent medical discoveries, with 87% agreeing that the government should ensure that the NHS and UK taxpayers benefited from gains resulting from any analysis.

Yet just 12% of NHS staff and private healthcare workers said they would be comfortable with a multinational company carrying out said analysis, while only 17% said they would trust multinational big tech companies to handle the data in a confidential manner.

In addition, 80% of respondents said they felt the UK should have a domestic capability in AI and health data analysis so that work didn’t need to be outsourced to other countries or multinational companies.

The survey follows news in August that the UK Government will invest £250 million in an AI Lab that will apply machine learning technology to patient records in an effort to develop new treatments for cancer, dementia and heart disease.

Rachel Power, chief executive of the Patients Association, said: “From these survey results, NHS staff appear to have a good grasp of the benefits that can be achieved for patients by the effective use of patient data.

“We support the use of data in medical research and to improve the planning and delivery of care, provided it is done carefully and within the current legal framework.

“It is important that full information should be available to patients both about the benefits of sharing their data and the methods used to store it, share it and keep it secure. Patients and the public must feel confident that their data will be used appropriately and kept secure.”

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Benefits clear to NHS staff

The online survey included responses from 768 NHS employees and 258 from private practice.

Seventy-one percent said they felt analysis could help solve some of the greatest healthcare challenges in the UK, such as cardiovascular disease.

The findings also highlighted the potential benefits that anonymised analysis and data-driven technology could offer, from reducing workload for doctors and nurses (53%), to helping patients better manage their conditions (76%).

While 73% would recommend that their patients use data-driven technology if it could help them better manager their condition, just 36% said their patients made use of existing digital services such as diabetes management systems and health-tracking wearable devices.

Sam Smith, lead on policy at Med Confidential, said that the findings were “not a surprise”.

“The Google Nightingale whistleblower shows that the tech companies have staff worried about this,” Smith said.

“We’re getting to the point where perhaps the tech companies have to make a choice, because health and tech staff will make them, of whether they want to target people, or whether they want to process health data. From the general public to the most informed actors (of which the Nightingale whistleblower must be one of the most), this is just creepy.”

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