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NHS: Healthcare Data - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:35 pm on 6th September 2018.

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Photo of Lord Mitchell Lord Mitchell Labour 12:35 pm, 6th September 2018

My Lords, I declare an interest as a shareholder in Sensyne Health plc, whose business is in medical artificial intelligence. I thank my noble friend Lord Freyberg for sponsoring this debate and for his truly excellent speech. He and I have been working closely together on this project for the past few months.

I very much enjoyed the speech by the noble Lord, Lord Bethell. He says he is a campaigner. I believe him, and I am a campaigner too so perhaps we can campaign together. I also thank Future Care Capital, which has been very supportive throughout, particularly Annemarie Naylor, who has kept me in line and continually encouraged me on this project.

My words today can be summed up very simply: I want to put as much pressure as I can to ensure that the huge potential value of our medical health records is channelled back to our NHS. I want that value to be maximised. In a letter to me in the final stages of the Data Protection Bill, and following some pretty intense lobbying, the Minister included the following sentence:

“We want to examine how we can maximise the value of the data for the benefit of the NHS and those who use and pay for it”.

I fought hard to have the words “maximise the value” inserted into that sentence, but I now read and detect that his department is looking to conclude commercial arrangements that are “fair” to all parties. I do not want to nitpick, but “fair” is a serious dilution of “maximise”. It is a soft, woolly word through which the international giants will drive a coach and horses. “Maximise” is strong and unambiguous. So I ask the Minister again: will commercial contracts between NHS trusts and private enterprise be maximised, as I would hope, or simply fair, which would benefit only big tech and big pharma?

When the Bill was passing through your Lordships’ House, it was frequently mentioned that data is the new oil—on Tuesday, no less a figure than the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury described data as more valuable than gold—and there can be no doubt that medical records are probably the most valuable data of all. By sheer chance, we find ourselves sitting on a treasure trove of rich patient data. That is because the NHS goes back to 1948, and uniquely in the world it possesses tens of millions of patient records. On top of that, we have a diversified population, which makes these records even more valuable. Many authorities I have spoken to value this data as being worth billions of pounds.

Artificial intelligence, coupled with machine learning and complex software, can now produce algorithms that, together with highly professional supervision, are able to predict clinical issues quicker and much more accurately than has previously been the case. Every physician will tell you that the sooner potential patient issues are diagnosed, the more likely it is that there will be a successful outcome. Analogies are always tricky but I cannot help thinking about the North Sea oil exploration and discoveries, which have proven so beneficial to our economy since the 1980s. In oil, there are parallels with NHS medical records. In its natural state oil is crude and hard to capture, but with commitment and huge investment the sticky, viscous liquid can be turned into petroleum products. So it is with medical records. The data is incomplete, scrappy and located in hospitals up and down the country. It too needs to be mined and refined, but with major investment that can be done.

I have pushed hard for the setting up of a sovereign health fund into which the proceeds of income generated from the licensing of NHS medical data records can be placed. I know the thinking is more towards a regional approach, but I shall add a caveat. We can already see the digital companies crawling all over NHS trusts. It is evident that these trusts have been outnegotiated. At Moorfields, they entered into a barter agreement with DeepMind. They failed to realise that the real value is in the algorithms produced, which are coveted by healthcare providers, pharmaceutical companies and health insurance companies around the world. This is where the value is—in the worldwide intellectual property. Big tech knows it; the NHS does not. A sovereign health fund would develop a pool of commercial, clinical and digital expertise, able to negotiate head-to-head with the global companies. It would maximise value.

We have a fantastic opportunity to generate major income for the NHS. To succeed we need courage. Will the Minister and his department be brave and bold enough to ensure that our NHS gets the maximum value it deserves?