NHS IT, Records and Data

19.04.18

Data-sharing framework needed this year to dodge another ‘DeepMind fiasco’

NHS England and NHS Digital must – with the support of the ICO, trusts and clinicians – publish a framework for the sharing of healthcare data by the end of this year in order to avoid another DeepMind fiasco.

The call come from peers in the Lords Artificial Intelligence (AI) Committee, who stated that the framework must clearly set out the considerations and precautions needed when sharing patient information anonymously, and an awareness of the value of the data and how it’s used.

The framework would help ensure that the NHS can maintain public trust over the safe and secure use of their information, which is “paramount to the successful widespread deployment of AI.”

In its report, the select committee admitted to concerns over the NHS’s lack of operational preparedness to embrace new technology, echoing other reports from last year which had argued that the digital revolution has “largely bypassed” the health service – which infamously remains the world’s biggest purchaser of fax machines.

The Lords’ report comes on the back of last year’s DeepMind fiasco, which saw the Royal Free NHS FT embroiled in controversy after the ICO determined it had failed to comply with data protection laws after sharing the information of almost two million patients with Google DeepMind for an app trial.

The National Data Guardian, Dame Fiona Caldicott, also revealed that patient had been shared with Google on an “inappropriate legal basis.”

Several witnesses told the committee that NHS trusts are making separate and arrangements with different companies to use datasets “that are very variable in their worth, suitability and application,” describing the current system as “very chaotic.”

“This lack of consistency not only risks the NHS not maximising the value of data it holds, but also risks the sharing of intensely personal patient data,” the report said. “The sharing of data, even with the best of intentions, to companies which may not be equipped to handle such data securely, must be avoided at all costs.”

It later added: “There must be no repeat of the controversy which arose between the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust and DeepMind. If there is, the benefits of deploying AI in the NHS will not be adopted or its benefits realised, and innovation could be stifled.”

The committee’s members also expressed concern that the current “piecemeal approach” taken by trusts, where local deals are struck between AI developers and hospitals, risks “inadvertent under-appreciation of the data,” as well as threatens to expose providers to inadequate data-sharing arrangements.

“Many organisations in the United Kingdom are not taking advantage of existing technology, let alone ready to take advantage of new technology such as artificial intelligence,” the report continued. “The NHS is, perhaps, the most pressing example of this.

“To release the value of the data held, we urge the NHS to digitise its current practices and records, in consistent formats, by 2022 to ensure that the data it holds does not remain inaccessible and the possible benefits to society unrealised.”

(Top image c. Dominic Lipinski, PA Archive)

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