An independent review of the UK life sciences industry has advised that the government must act urgently to ensure that patients and UK taxpayers gain from new commercial applications of NHS data.
The good news: NHS data has huge potential
Sir John Bell, a Professor of Medicine at Oxford University, led the government-commissioned review. He said that NHS patients’ records are “uniquely suited for driving the development of powerful algorithms that could transform healthcare and seed an entirely new industry based in AI (Artificial Intelligence)-based diagnostics.”
Bell also highlighted some troubling findings in the report; in particular, what it described as a ‘very urgent’ need to review how companies are given access to NHS data and the ownership of algorithms developed using these records.
“What you don’t want is somebody rocking up and using NHS data as a learning set for the generation of algorithms and then moving the algorithm to San Francisco and selling it so all the profits come back to another jurisdiction,” he said.
The worrying warning has been largely overlooked due to a prevalent misconception that recent advances in AI have sprung from the development of new, sophisticated machine-learning algorithms. Machine learning is not necessarily the master key for medical advances.
The most significant value could actually lie in the data-sets used to train algorithms on tasks ranging from speech recognition to disease diagnosis.
The NHS is the world’s largest publicly funded health service, meaning patient records represent one of the most comprehensive health data-sets in existence.
What we don’t want to do with that data is give it away for free.
The recent Google DeepMind scandal has only just died down, but Bell describes this controversy at the ‘canary in the coalmine’. In case you missed it – the Royal Free hospital in London granted Google DeepMind access to 1.6m patient records; and many of the records were not anonymised.
He asked ‘who’s going to profit from that?’ – the answer? Google DeepMind; not the British public.
So, what next – what do we think the government needs to do to ensure that the NHS data-set is used effectively, and fairly?
The review calls for the investment of millions of pounds in high-risk projects, with the goal of creating ‘two or three entirely new industries’ in the next decade. The development of these new industries would strengthen the way we use data, and ensure it is used for the benefit of the British public. The current structure is hampering the ability to develop pricing agreements for drugs based on outcomes, and to perform monitoring of drugs to spot any long-term safety issues.