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article imageOp-Ed: Privacy concerns jeopardise healthcare innovation

By Alan Cairns     Dec 22, 2015 in Health
London - There is significant concern about what the latest innovations in healthcare mean for personal medical data, to the extent that some innovations, such as the government's, have been paused.
From nano-bots that diagnose and treat cancer to mind-controlled prosthetic limbs, 3D printed bodily organs to robot surgeons, innovation is revolutionising healthcare. It should be no surprise that healthcare stocks are growing, particularly in life sciences, but as healthcare goes digital it is raising concerns about what this could mean for personal medical data.
Sharing is caring
The NHS sharing scheme has been put on hold again after continuing concerns about the confidentiality of medical data.The scheme aims to share medical data to improve services and understanding of health conditions and treatments.
Despite a YouGov poll indicating that 85 percent of the public were in favour of healthcare professionals having secure electronic access to data from their GPs records, a Pulse survey found that 40 percent of GPs intended to opt-out of the data-sharing scheme. GPs have an obligation as data controllers to inform their patients about data extractions, and clearly lack faith in the scheme.
There is a significant level of concern about the way medical data is shared and who it is shared with. It recently emerged that access to NHS medical records are to be shared with high street pharmacists such as Boots, Tesco and Superdrug.
While exponents argue that data sharing will mean better care can be provided outside hospitals and clinics, privacy campaigners fear that this will expose the public to targeted marketing and advertising. They warn that more broadly that the lack of public consultation on the initiative could erode trust in the NHS.
The damage may already be done. Research recently revealed that some existing NHS smartphone apps transmit unencrypted personal details, putting us at risk of identity theft and fraud.
One proposed plan to placate concerns about misuse of data is for individuals to own their own data. Instead of the data being shared in the background between organisations individuals could be empowered by owning their own personal medical data. Then individuals can decide who they share their data with.
It’s not the first time the NHS has tried to make better use of data. In 2002 the NHS National Programme for IT was intended to improve the use of data within the institution. The £10bn project was abandoned in 2011 following complications in developing and deploying care records.
Wearing your heart on your sleeve
One way in which it is hoped technological innovation can help the NHS offer better care is in wearable technology. Some of us are already using devices to monitor our bodies; from sleep tracking smartphone apps to personal activity trackers to monitor exercise.
Keoni Cabral
Wearables offer incredible opportunities for revolutionising healthcare provision. They can be used to actively monitor conditions in real time, allowing professionals to make better predictions, react faster and prevent unnecessary admissions. This is especially important for the monitoring of conditions like diabetes and asthma.
It could even represent a more fundamental change in the way that healthcare is provided, in that wearables will allow individuals to manage and monitor their own health more proactively, rather than relying on doctors’ to analyse and advise based on comparatively sparse information.
The possibilities are (almost) endless. Devices of this kind will soon be able to detect heartbeat irregularities, blood pressure and glucose levels.
It doesn’t end with utilisation of existing wearable devices. The NHS Innovation Accelerator project sees seventeen entrepreneurs being commissioned to develop new technology for the NHS including smartphone apps and wearable devices.
But as wearable monitoring devices grow the amount of medical data that is collected it also amplifies privacy concerns. Campaigners are scared of this information being used by insurers, employers and marketers.
While public sentiment against the project has been fairly widespread, these concerns have been dismissed by the NHS data chief as scare stories. The Health and Social Care Information Centre reassured the public that:
“While a regulated healthcare professional may have secure, controlled access to the SCR in a pharmacy within a supermarket as with any other pharmacy setting, this information is not accessible by other means and will never be available to supermarkets for other purposes, such as marketing.”
It is perturbing that the NHS data chief also acknowledged that the NHS is unable to honour the objections of 700,000 people who have already opted out of the project. Inclusion of real time data gathered from wearable devices could spark even stronger concerns about the safety of personal and medical data.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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