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Public opposes exploitation of NHS data by large tech companies

Following the US presidential visit to the UK, a YouGov survey found citizens are largely against use of patient information by international tech firms and want benefits focused on the UK

UK citizens are mostly against use of sensitive NHS patient data by international technology companies, and most MPs want the government to take formal steps to tackle related risks, a YouGov survey has found.

This follows US president Donald Trump’s intentions to include the NHS as part of a trade deal with the UK, as well as remarks from NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens around encouraging organisations across the system to use artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to replace some clinician tasks.

According to the research, funded by health tech Sensing Health, the majority of UK citizens polled (76%) support use of anonymised NHS patient data to enhance diagnosis, research and care, while 95% of the MPs polled supporting such use of data to enable better treatment, and four-fifths said that this would lighten the financial burden on the NHS.

However, any potential around NHS data is dampened by lack of trust from the public when it comes to allowing international tech businesses to use patients’ personal information, especially outside the UK.

Since there is no legislation to protect patient data, 70% of the citizens surveyed don’t trust technology companies in other countries to handle patient information, even if it’s anonymised. Some 69% raised concerns over data being handled in countries where data protection frameworks are different to those applied in the UK.

In addition, some 86% of citizens polled want to see the NHS gaining a fair share to be a priority for any data analysis undertaken. Four-fifths of those surveyed also said the government should ensure benefit to the NHS and taxpayers from patient data exploitation.

Only 11% of the citizens polled are happy for NHS data to be analysed by businesses that are not paying tax in the UK, the survey adds.

Additionally, most of those surveyed (70%) would prefer UK patient data to be analysed only by organisations such as universities and companies that are registered and based in the country.

NHS patient data is a national resource and asset, according to 79% of the MPs surveyed, with the percentage rising to 87% among Labour MPs. Some 80% of MP who took part in the survey also want to see the government taking formal steps to ensure that NHS patient data is protected by law.

“There’s little doubt that new technologies will play a part in delivering care in future, and the results from this study confirm that most people support the use of anonymised patient data for medical research purposes,” said Rachel Power, chief executive at the Patients Association.

“The sharing of patients’ information between care institutions is essential to delivering joined-up care that works for the patient, and it is vitally important that this is done, with all appropriate safeguards, to ensure that sensitive information remains confidential.”

YouGov surveyed 2,081 adults in the UK between 11 and 12 March 2019, and 102 MPs between 11 and 25 March 2019.

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