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NHS: Healthcare Data - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:54 pm on 6th September 2018.

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Photo of Lord St John of Bletso Lord St John of Bletso Crossbench 12:54 pm, 6th September 2018

My Lords, I join in the thanks to my noble friend Lord Freyberg for introducing this very topical debate. I am grateful to the Library for the very useful research note we received. I also join in the congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, on a fine maiden speech. We all respected his late father for his many campaigns.

I was fortunate, like the noble Baroness, Lady Rock, to be a Member of your Lordships’ Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence. A major conclusion of our report was that one of the biggest beneficiaries of the effective use of AI and data will be the healthcare sector and obviously the National Health Service.

As my noble friend Lord Mitchell mentioned, data is the new oil and is the fuel of artificial intelligence and the fourth industrial revolution. Clearly, the considerations of privacy, public trust and recent breaches of data security are of widespread concern and need to be properly addressed. But big data, if it is fully embraced, has the potential to provide huge advances in improved treatment, risk mitigation and—a point that has not been mentioned by other speakers—cost savings to the National Health Service.

It is encouraging that the Government have identified AI and data as one of the United Kingdom’s four great challenges in the industrial strategy. Today, we measure the human body in several metrics: heart rate, blood pressure, temperature and glucose levels. I do not profess to have any medical expertise, but it is well known that we have about 10 trillion cells in the human body and, with the advances in AI and technology, we can now measure the quantified self with data streams using wearables such as Fitbits and Apple watches, heart rate monitors and others. Many believe that, within 10 years, we will be able to instrument almost every cell in the body in real time.

We are increasingly moving from a world of reactive health to preventive health. Analysing much of the healthcare data from the NHS offers huge opportunities in preventive medicine. It is well known that there is no central database for medical records within the NHS, which highlights the need for more interoperability of health information systems. I was interested in the GMC report last year which highlighted a significant step change in the UK healthcare data landscape from the 26 research centres. While identifiable medical records are rightly strictly regulated, there is potential—a point made by the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman—to anonymise more data, which would prevent data scientists from breaching privacy laws. We have the biggest pool of healthcare data possibly in the world within the NHS. Apart from the obvious benefits of the primary use of healthcare data within the NHS, there are the secondary uses outside the NHS. We could radically reduce the cost of healthcare using preventive diagnosis—a very important point. By way of example: within five years, many believe that, with the effective use of data, we could tackle almost every type of cancer through early detection. Yesterday, I had lunch with Salim Ismail, the founding chief executive of Singularity University, which brings together the top experts in the fast-moving technologies around the world. He believes that the NHS could go from spending an average of £250,000 per patient down to £50,000 in the next 10 years. This is profound.

In the history of mankind, we have never seen so much intensity of innovation—from solar energy, autonomous cars to drones to biotech and genomics, to neuroscience breakthroughs and many other disruptive technologies. With access to more data we are now on the brink of understanding and solving some of the major mental diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and dementia. Using technologies with the benefit of large datasets, such as FUS—focused ultrasound—could revolutionise the treatment of many illnesses non-invasively. We need to shift legacy mindsets to embrace new ideas. By embracing blockchain technologies we could dramatically reduce the cost to the public sector of healthcare. Time restricts me from elaborating on the benefits of blockchain, but I was encouraged by the recent reply that the Minister gave me to an Oral Question that the Government were embarking on a number of pilot studies looking at these benefits.

I hope that more can be done to promote and accelerate the analysis of large datasets within the NHS. By doing this, the United Kingdom has the potential to be a global leader in health and wellness in the 21st century.