Towards making the pandemic response data changes safe for the longer term

HSJ reports a belief within Government that some current data practices, changed dramatically with emergency powers to meet the needs of the urgent pandemic response, should now become ‘the new normal’. While some of these changes might indeed be welcome, and some probably should remain, others need to end – and others must be significantly amended if they are to become anything like ‘normal’. 

It is not news that some status quo practices in the NHS around digital records were not entirely safe; this was for many reasons, not least the motivations and incentives of a range of actors – from multinational corporations to creepy single doctors – who want access to people’s direct care records for reasons beyond direct care.

A net assessment should be conducted of the goals and proposed ‘end state’ around health and care data (medConfidential will do one too) to provide a comparison with our net assessment from before COVID-19.

Digital and Direct Care

DHSC and the NHS did what they could in the circumstances, but access to digital services for those who are digitally disengaged continues to be a problem across Government – especially where community access points such as libraries are closed, either temporarily or permanently. A Whole of Government approach should be taken (possibly in the spending review) to assess and improve the piecemeal work done by Departments.

Mobile phone networks providing free data access to NHS.UK was a milestone in access to digital services, but many digital approaches across the NHS are not via zero-rated services: probably the starkest example of this is video consultations, which are a postcode lottery of apps and charging models – while the much-vaunted NHS app* still lacks video consultations for those situations where it helps both GPs and NHS 111. (*: No, not the (contact tracing) app. Rather, the good one that NHS Digital built as a core service; the NHS app which acts as a ‘front end’ to NHS.UK)

As COVID-19 de-escalates, and as NHS Test and Trace capacity therefore becomes available, the newly-NHS parts of PHE should address the mess – including the ongoing postcode lottery – of digital services that facilitate STD testing. NHS T&T will need something to do with its capacity after COVID, and the country requires a testing infrastructure to remain.

There will likely be a range of additional tests which can be moved to the ‘post-back and test’ approach of Test and Trace; SH:24 has shown how to do this at scale, but the broken model of Public Health England prevented equal benefit for all. And when such testing moves into the NHS, all of the existing Public Health safeguards and ring fencing around such data collected by NHS T&T will be required.

As with every new technology innovation requiring personal data, these can be used as a mechanism to get laid: creepy single doctors (and others without clear direct care purposes) should not have the ability to view the STD history of those they treat – or go on dates with, having met outside of work – in the way that, due to COVID reforms, creepy single doctors can currently view someone’s full medical history due to the removal of safeguards, with no means for a patient to know when their record was accessed.

Access to individual records for care

The widening of access to records has long been debated within the NHS. And while some clinicians will say how much it helps them, and while some of that may indeed be true, it is far from clear whether the patients involved can know whether their records were accessed where they should have been – i.e. that the wider access was actually useful – or whether their records were accessed when they should not have been – i.e. where wider access was harmful.

NHS Digital keeps records of every Summary Care Record access; these should be made available to each patient within the NHS app (and on NHS.UK when the NHS Login launches there) in order that verified patients can see how their record was used. Without providing that evidence base, any argument for any use of patients’ data will likely be some form of special pleading.

If the public is to have confidence in the broader uses of their data, the ‘new normal’ is going to require the NHS and wider public services to provide the evidence and information people require to assess their trustworthiness. Absent such information, and with decisions being made or influenced by those with other agendas, public trust will continue to degrade. Whether incrementally or catastrophically (as with another care.data) remains to be seen.

The decision to provide this evidence can no longer be ‘kicked into the long grass’; the information vacuum is already being filled. And where NHS IT suppliers such as TTP – which, with its GP Connect Access Record: HTML service, makes information on how a patient’s record has been accessed available to people outside of TPP’s service – do this in ways in which patients themselves cannot see, even if they use the NHS app, it is being filled in ways that are potentially explosive.

Access to records (in bulk) for secondary uses

ONS recently published a new re-identification process for ‘anonymised’ administrative data, which demonstrates that data even less detailed and less specific than data that is currently disseminated by NHS Digital is still open to re-identification – in practice, as well as in theory.

Even if some still assert that pseudonymised data is “not identifiable” – as contradictory as that opinion is to GDPR and DPA 2018 – it is now clear that pseudonymised data can be re-identified. NHS policy and practices of dissemination can no longer ignore the law, or the published work of the Office of National Statistics.

Some developments during the pandemic, such as openSAFELY, which while impossible even to establish without emergency COVID powers, probably should be incorporated into the ‘new normal’. But not simply as they are. Each such initiative must have a proper ongoing legal basis – by which we do not mean infinitely-extended exemptions, such as perpetually renewed s251 support, but proper involvement of data controllers – and robust information governance for every project: all projects being approved by a statutory public body with a reputable, transparent process approved by data controllers. 

Consensual, safe and transparent use of patients’ data is the only sustainable long term model; completely lawful, and with the appropriate governance and patient visibility to be trustworthy that is absent around the cabal of friends we see with some entities.

Public bodies can Improve The Foundations of other priorities

The move of (much of) PHE into the NHS is not new. The cancer registry was moved from PHE to NHS Digital due to the failures of PHE, and the opportunities available for better cancer data within the NHS are already being delivered, following that move. That the cancer registry has applied the National Data Opt-out since 2018 did not cause harm to data users, so there is little cause to worry that any other lawfully-operating disease registry will lose out by moving within NHS Digital.

As the future location for all of PHE’s other responsibilities remain unclear, an approach based on ‘offline harms’ would – given the new bodies’ remits – allow a new advisory committee to cover anything beyond DHSC’s National Institute for Health Protection and the NHS, and ensure no gaps.

NHSX / NHS Digital reforms: One cannot build on toxic foundations. Any ‘reform’ that merged NHS Digital and/or NHSX into NHS England (and Improvement?), would be fundamentally unworkable. The body that makes commissioning and decommissioning decisions cannot credibly claim to both make decisions based on evidence and be the statutory safe haven for medical records, without patients equally credibly believing their records were used to close their hospital – even if such a belief is incorrect.

‘Artificial Intelligence’: Using its purchasing power to insist on a scheme of commodity pricing, the NHS can ensure both a competitive market for health AI – giving patients the benefits of new services, NHS medics tools and diagnostic assistance they can use, and innovators the confidence they will be able to get a reasonable return for a good investment – while also opening up the worldwide use of NHS-class services and tools.

Documents: