NHS patient data ‘worth £5 billion’ to private companies

23 August 2019 Consultancy.uk 5 min. read
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A controversial new report has suggested the NHS could cash in on its patient records by opening them up to private companies. The report estimated that the 55 million patient records held by the NHS could have a value of several billion pounds to a commercial organisation, however campaigners have been quick to warn that without significant safeguarding, this is open to “abuse from commercial exploitation.”

Big Data has rapidly ascended as a major technique for companies to capitalise on the potential that sits within their data. According to numerous studies, the concept turns the reams of data most companies hold into a potential goldmine, revealing key trends in consumer behaviour which could yield major returns in the future. As a result, despite the relative youth of the Big Data concept, nearly half of UK organisations have already sired Big Data projects and initiatives.

At the same time, as the NHS continues to contend with the incumbent government’s austerity policy, which has seen it face real terms budget reductions throughout the last decade, the core social institution is rapidly approaching a breaking point. Under-resourced and under-staffed, a rapidly ageing population is putting unprecedented strain on the NHS.

Schematic of impact framework for estimating the economic benefits and uplift

Now, a new paper from professional services giant EY has claimed that the NHS could tap into a vital source of funding by opening up its patient records to private entities. EY noted that the NHS is in a unique position as the single largest integrated health care provider in the world, before suggesting this meant the 55 million records it holds could be worth as much as £5 billion per annum to a commercial organisation, based on recent M&A transactions and public company valuations.

The recommendation from the Big Four accounting and advisory firm comes at a controversial time, with the alleged back-door privatisation of the NHS through outsourcing coming under mounting criticism. In 2018, the Department of Health and Social Care handed a record £9.2 billion to outsourced service providers such as Virgin Care (though Virgin Care to date has never returned a profit it has run at a loss) and the Priory mental health group, an increase of 14% from the £8.1 billion that went to private healthcare companies in 2014-15. At the same time, the health service – which has provided free universal healthcare in Britain for more than 70 years – is speculated to be part of a proposed trade deal between the UK and US post-Brexit.

As a result, the suggestion the institution could cash in on its curated database by providing certain partners with access has been met with scepticism, to say the least. Tony O’Sullivan, a retired paediatrician and Co-Chair of anti-privatisation campaign group Keep Our NHS Public, found the recommendation particularly worrying.

Speaking to Consultancy.uk, O’Sullivan said, “The future of the NHS is more uncertain than ever as we face the threat of a No Deal Brexit and rushed through trade deals with the US. In [this] context, the risk that the commercial exploitation of NHS data is 'on the table' for negotiation, is chilling.”

Patient benefits

According to EY’s findings, the opportunity is not only a financial one, however. The firm suggested that partnering with private companies could also help unlock valuable patient insights. The researchers estimated some £4.6 billion of possible benefits to patients per annum, a figure accumulated by potential operational savings for the NHS, enhanced patient outcomes and generation of wider economic benefits to the UK.

The analysts suggested that this would help cover “significant process and technology costs associated with aggregation, cleaning, curating, hosting, analysing and protecting the transformation of these raw data records into a consolidated longitudinal patient-level dataset.” By doing so, EY concluded that the NHS and UK Government could better achieve their health priorities on prevention, as well as care and costs, while placing the NHS and the UK “at the forefront of health care innovation.”

This might well prove easier said than done, however. In the UK, previous reports have already suggested the public is extremely uncomfortable with retailers using their information to provide new and more convenient services. If the population is wary about the local supermarket tracking their spending habits, it is unlikely they are going to be more enthused by the prospect of private companies accessing something as sensitive as their medical data.

Indeed, despite the potential benefit EY’s recommendations could yield, Keep Our NHS Public remains concerned at this prospect too. According to O’Sullivan, without “cast-iron assurances” in place that NHS patient data would only be used for the benefit of planning better services and care, rather than being “sold or contracted out for profit”, there would be a clear danger that the data would likely be subject to “abuse from commercial exploitation.”

O’Sullivan concluded, “EY… are salivating over the potential use that 23 million specialist data sets and 100,000 DNA patient codes could be. While EY is careful to talk about potential benefits to the NHS, they are talking up the commercial value of the data. If the NHS cannot guard patient data and prevent its abuse from commercial exploitation, government and NHS senior managers will have let the whole population down. We need guarantees that the data of patients will only ever be owned by the patients themselves, placed with the NHS as its custodian.”

EY has been contacted for comment on the critique of its findings.