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Data: Supporting health and wealth

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Andrew Davies

Digital Health Lead, ABHI (Association of British HealthTech Industries)

Lessons from the pandemic have already been well rehearsed; the shift to remote GP access, the increased use of telehealth to keep people safe in their own homes and the reduction in bureaucracy to enable streamlined sharing of patient data. We must now look at how we can integrate these lessons post-pandemic.

Changes in access to healthcare were enabled by a common purpose, use of derogations in regulations and clarity of risk versus benefit. Not all of these circumstances will remain post-pandemic and new ways of working will need to be established to ensure we maintain these benefits. These may be legislative or cultural and some will inevitably require funding.

It is of particular interest in how the pandemic will shape attitudes to sharing data, and in turn, influence legislation. It is widely accepted that data sharing is vital to aid efficient service delivery, support improved outcomes and provide insights for innovation. There are of course legitimate concerns over privacy.

The UK needs to leverage its health assets to the widest possible benefit for its patients, citizens and economy.

Ensuring legislation works with innovation

On 1st January 2021, the UK entered a six-month interim arrangement with the EU on data sharing, with a full decision on adequacy due within that period. This agreement, and presumably, largely unchanged UK Data Protection rules, will set the overall legislative context for UK data handling.

However, there are many calling for flexibilities derived from Control of Patient Information (COPI) to be enshrined in new information governance rules. Sarah Wilkinson, CEO of NHS Digital, has been quoted as sayingThe current legislation is very labyrinthine and that makes it difficult to have a clear dialogue with a broad cross-section of people, even within the health and care system.”

Any changes to legislation that enable a more streamlined flow of data across the NHS and helps build critical datasets would be welcome.

Ensuring faster access to care through data

The ‘data economy’ in health is hugely prized and the UK has an opportunity to develop an open-data resource that could attract clinicians, academics and industry to help develop next generation solutions to critical health problems, stimulating economic growth and enabling UK health services to reduce the “bench to bedside” timeline.

Some baulk at the idea of profit from health data but ‘health and wealth’ are two sides of the same coin. Healthcare performance is strongly dependent on the economy. Wealthier countries have healthier populations and it is a basic truth that poverty adversely affects life expectancy. The UK needs to leverage its health assets to the widest possible benefit for its patients, citizens and economy.

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