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My Lords, it is a great honour to follow the excellent maiden speech of my noble friend Lord Bethell. I know that all noble Lords will join me in extending him a very warm welcome. As we have heard, he brings a rich family heritage as well as the experience of a veteran campaigner outside of Parliament. I am sure that we will benefit from that dedication, energy and commitment in this Chamber. We look forward to his future contributions.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, for the opportunity to speak in this important debate with esteemed colleagues. Healthcare data may seem dry to some but it is one of the great challenges and opportunities of the technological revolution. Before I move on to some specifics, we should bear in mind the backdrop against which the NHS currently operates—one of significant and sustained financial pressure. It should not be a question, therefore, of whether our healthcare system embraces technology, and opportunities in data within that; it must be a question of how. McKinsey published research on a “large OECD country”, which many have taken to refer to the UK, and a savings opportunity of up to 12% by simply implementing existing digital technologies, of which up to half could be data related. This is an opportunity the NHS cannot afford to miss. Let us keep that in mind when we consider the issue in the round. A financially sound, digitally enabled NHS is to the benefit of all, patients and staff.
That said, we have a way to go before we can consider the NHS well placed to capitalise. Last year, the DeepMind Health Independent Review Panel annual report reminded us that:
“The digital revolution has largely bypassed the NHS, which, in 2017, still retains the dubious honour of being the world’s largest purchaser of fax machines”.
However, I am hopeful that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health, given that he has recently departed the department that is home to all things digital, is well placed to redress this. Indeed, he has already confirmed that technology implementation is one of his priorities. This is an agenda worth pursuing.
I was fortunate enough to sit on the House of Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence. We considered AI’s implications for healthcare. The Academy of Medical Sciences, in giving evidence, said that its impact on the healthcare system,
“is likely to be profound”,
because research and development will become more efficient. New methods of healthcare delivery will become possible, clinical decision-making will be more informed and patients will be more informed in managing their health. So we have administrative gains, particularly if data can be centralised so that different silos can communicate. I commend this Government’s investment in joining up the data to improve the patient experience as they move through the health and social care system, but the gains are broader still—for example, in diagnostics. Microsoft Research showed our Select Committee its InnerEye technology, which will assist oncologists in reading scans. At present, 2 million women are screened for breast cancer every year and these scans are red at a rate of 55 per hour. Technology will reduce this without compromising integrity or commercial outcomes, and at a significant saving to the NHS. This is but one example.
We also saw examples in genomics and personalised medicine, as well as processing data to detect and monitor pandemics. I am encouraged by the digital innovation hubs, which will securely use data to improve the way we are able to prevent, detect and diagnose diseases such as cancer, heart disease and asthma so that patients can benefit from scientific breakthroughs much faster. In short, there are huge clinical and financial benefits if the NHS can capitalise. The question is how we can build trust and bring the public with us. Certainly, the NHS dataset is unique, in size and in longitude, so it presents a unique opportunity, but with that opportunity comes responsibility.
We have all heard of DeepMind’s health engagement with the Royal Free Hospital, the study involving the sharing of 1 million anonymised eye scans under a research agreement that began in 2016. It cost the hospital nothing, which is great, but it might reap huge financial gains for DeepMind and its parent, Google. Many will be uncomfortable with the idea of businesses profiting from exploiting their health data, as has been mentioned, so the right balance must be struck. Benefits in kind is perhaps one way, since it avoids explicit monetisation. However, the AI Committee concluded that what we really need is a departure from local deals being struck piecemeal and a new framework for sharing NHS data, developed and published by the end of 2018. I would be grateful for the Minister’s comments on that. I do, though, commend the forthcoming code of conduct for AI and digital technology, which will provide added reassurance to patients.
The National Information Board summed up the task well in describing its mission as,
“developing the strategic priorities for data and technology in health and care to deliver the maximum benefits for all of us, as citizens and as patients”.
It is that mantra, “to the benefit of all of us”, that we must lead with.