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NHS should ‘sell anonymised data, says Tony Blair and William Hague

Written by Mon 29 Jan 2024

Sir Tony Blair and Lord Hague said the NHS should sell anonymised data to improve public services and research in a new report.

The report titled ‘A New National Purpose: Leading the Biotech Revolution’ highlighted biotechnology as a cornerstone for reshaping the UK by enhancing lives and nurturing future-leading companies. The former UK Prime Minister and ex-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs said this will position the UK for ‘a century of success’.

“We both believe that whether Britain can establish a leading position in science and innovation will be the single most important determinant of our future prosperity, and therefore of the jobs, living standards, and security of British people,” said Blair and Hague.

The report proposed the establishment of a new NHS Data Trust (NHSDT) to leverage the potential of health data. The NHSDT would view NHS data as a valuable asset, providing anonymised data to research entities, including biotech firms, in exchange for financial returns that would support the health service.

The report recommended creating a transparent governance model to safeguard data. The model would also ensure the NHSDT’s operations prioritise public health objectives over private capital interests.

Blair and Hague added the opportunities that could spring from AI have become well-understood in the last year, but ‘biotechnology now also brings the prospect of fundamental change in how we work and live’.

The report stressed Britain needs to focus on seizing the global biotech opportunity in the AI era, optimising data for research and developing AI-driven personalised health advisors, fostering the next generation of leading companies, and safeguarding against global biothreats.

“There is not a moment to lose in making the most of it,” added Blair and Hague.

Blair and Hague Suggest Personalised AI Doctors

The report also suggested creating a UK Laboratory of Biodesign to develop and test new biotechnologies, biomolecules, and therapeutics using experimental and computational methods.

The proposed laboratory is intended to attract top international talent, encourage commercial spinouts, and boast cutting-edge facilities.

“By learning from these efforts and adopting a novel institutional structure the Laboratory of Biodesign will help the UK move to the frontier of applied biotech research,” said the report.

The report also suggested the creation of a MediMind laboratory network to work towards personalised AI doctors in partnership with industry and NHS. 

The Laboratory will employ AI to assist doctors in efficiently treating patients, reducing strain on the NHS. AI-enabled doctors will uncover connections in vast datasets that humans may overlook, enhancing individual and public health outcomes.

“The UK should lead this endeavour, pioneering a research laboratory with a well-resourced core institute that has the ability to fund researchers and clinicians around the country. These will complement and assist, not replace, human doctors,” said the report.

The report also said the UK should set up a new UK Biosecurity Taskforce to learn from COVID-19 and develop practical plans for biosecure societies. These should include new, low-friction safeguards on advanced biotech.

“Britain has a chance to capitalise on this next wave of innovation … the payoffs of investing now will be vast in the years ahead,” said the report.

UK Urged to Foster Biotech Giants

The report emphasised the UK’s need to transition towards building trillion-dollar companies to ‘form the next biotech wave’ and compete with the US. The biotech sector is worth more than £4.7 trillion ($6 trillion) in market capitalisation, with companies in the US responsible for over half of that figure.

“Notably, the UK is a major exporter of technology, and the US a key beneficiary. We need to shift the balance, aiming to build trillion-dollar companies that will form the next wave of biotech by ensuring that we can scale and list companies at home,” added the report.

To achieve this, there needs to be a dynamic ecosystem where emerging managers, solo GPs, and fund operators can enhance capital competitiveness. The UK must also set spinout terms that incentivise and reward entrepreneurs while reforming pension funds and capital markets.

Past NHS Data Concerns

In 2021, the media platform openDemocracy took the NHS to court. The case concerned a £23 million ($29.1 million) contract with big data analytics firm, Palantir, which was supplying data-sifting software to government agencies.

Palantir was recently awarded a contract worth up to £330 million ($416 million) to provide software for the new NHS Federated Data Platform.

The Federated Data Platform is expected to deliver better care for millions of patients by reducing waiting lists and hospital discharge delays.

In 2017, the Information Commissioner (ICO) criticised the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust for failing to safeguard the private medical records of 1.6 million people accessed by Google’s DeepMind. 

This data transfer was part of their collaboration to develop Streams, a healthcare app for acute kidney injury management. The ICO’s decision originated from the app’s ongoing testing with patient data without sufficient patient notification. 

DeepMind contended the records were essential for developing a life-saving app, and a lawsuit filed by patients was dismissed.

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Written by Mon 29 Jan 2024

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