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NHS: Healthcare Data - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:30 pm on 6th September 2018.

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Photo of Lord O'Shaughnessy Lord O'Shaughnessy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care 1:30 pm, 6th September 2018

That is a point to which I will return. I recognise absolutely the concern voiced in this Chamber and in debates elsewhere about making sure that the NHS gets a fair deal.

We have heard from the noble Lords, Lord Mitchell and Lord Freyberg, about Sensyne Health. One of our own number, the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, founded this company, which has taken an interesting attitude while working with lots of university hospitals and trusts. It has both shared equity in the company with those trusts and given them royalties for algorithms built on the data that it holds. For me, this is a step change in how we conceive of data as being not just a service rendered but a form of capital invested. As we work to create more guidelines on the right kind of commercial strategy—and I reassure noble Lords that we will work on that over the autumn—these must recognise that people view data more like a form of capital, and therefore the commercial arrangements need to reflect that. Having said that, we also need to provide a degree of flexibility. The noble Lord, Lord Macpherson, explained the difficulty sometimes not just in valuing this data—we are engaging in that Treasury exercise—but in making sure that the right arrangements occur between the public sector, the private sector and academia.

If I may, I want to take issue with something that the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, said about the difference between “maximised” and “fairly”. We are slightly dancing on the head of a pin here, and I will explain why. Of course we want to maximise the benefits to the NHS, both directly through value sharing and, down the line, in the development of new technologies and treatments. Equally, as is the case with oil, if you ask for too high a price, people will not buy it and there is nothing to share. Therefore, when I talk about fair distribution, it is about making sure that we maximise the benefits and that the role of the NHS’s contribution in the creation of maximal benefits for health and wealth is recognised fairly.

I am interested in the noble Lord’s idea of a sovereign health fund. He and I have discussed that previously and I want to consider it more. However, it is a fair criticism that we need to improve the commercial acumen in the sector. Some ideas have been mentioned, including the creation of a technology transfer office or similar for the NHS, and we are certainly considering that.

I want to very quickly touch on the issue of skills, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar. We have asked Dr Eric Topol to lead a review on changes in technology and new developments to make sure that we have the right skills in the NHS. He will publish his final report by the end of the year, and that will feed into the long-term funding plan that we are developing.

We know that the NHS has a huge asset in its hands. People have bequeathed a precious gift to it and we have to get the maximum benefit from it. At the same time, we need to bring people’s trust and provide reassurance at all times. As the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, said, it is a fine balance—a line that we need to tread. The Government are very conscious of that. Things are moving quickly; we need to move quickly as well. That is why this debate has been extremely useful both in raising the salience and highlighting some of the issues but also, as I said, in providing a ground for new ideas.

Many noble Lords asked whether we will have a strategy. They will know, have seen and it has been mentioned that we have a new Secretary of State. He is not just a technophile but I believe was actually a coder at some point in his life. I reassure noble Lords that not just embedding technology but realising the potential for value and making sure it is maximised and fairly distributed will form a core part of the long-term plan we are developing. I look forward enormously to working with all noble Lords in this House who have contributed to this debate and elsewhere to make sure that we are able to achieve that goal.