Earlier this week the advisor to the NHS’s contact-tracing app efforts, Professor Floridi, said countries relying solely on tech giants for delivering their track and trace solutions could be ceding power to them. Michael Lewis, professor of life science innovation at the University of Birmingham, and non-executive chairman of iPLATO, the developers of NHS patient healthcare app ‘myGP’ shares a different perspective.
The comments from Professor Floridi highlight one side of the debate around the state wanting to control patient data and the individuals themselves keeping control of their health data via Google and Apple. The reason the UK is still without a fully functioning track and trace app is due to the NHS’s belief that patient data is their asset, and their subsequent efforts to guard it from the tech moguls. However, by going its own way, the NHS has taken on the mantle of ‘below par’ software development, as we have seen with the NHS App and with the COVID-19 track and trace app.
Putting this simply, Google does not do brain surgery, so why should the NHS build or specify technology? The NHS exists to treat patients – not to build technology, and as a result we are seeing inevitable delays, scope creep, partial solutions, and high costs – and during this time, lives are lost. The NHS track and trace app was originally planned for a mid-May national launch and is still not fit for purpose.
When it comes to the ethical debate around patient data, there is a camp of academics who view this information as belonging to the patient, and not the state. If one is considering the ethics of accessing patient data, then recent activity has shown how simply the state can waive the law to access citizens’ data that is normally protected by GDPR, and immediately our privacy is eroded.
Enabling Google and Apple temporary access to our data, in the interest of our health, or potentially our lives, seems reasonable, especially when there is no guarantee that we can trust the state to guard our data. In reality, anyone online already shares health data with Google and Apple every day, from simple search history to location data and app usage, right through to our purchasing history and our calendars.
With this in mind, as long as there are reasonable parameters in place in terms of how long the tech giants can access patient’s data for, one could say that the data horse has already bolted, and the philosophical debate about who owns what should be put aside in the interest of delivering a functional track and trace technology that can impact a 15-20% reduction in COVID-19 transmission, and save lives from day one.
To my knowledge, the actual patients, whose data is being debated, have not been consulted at any stage in this process. With so many mortalities in the UK, one would suggest that many citizens would be more than happy to donate their data to help with vaccine development, therapeutics and helping to reduce transmission, as long as the request to use their data is clear, transparent and time limited.
As the non-executive chairman of iPLATO, the developers of myGP, the free app that enables its 1.7 million NHS patient users to book appointments and access their own medical records as well as monitor and manage their own health, we regularly speak to patients about their user journey, data sharing and privacy constantly. The general consensus amongst patients when it comes to data sharing, is that if a technology acts in the interest of their health and their data is safe, they will use it – and very rarely would the developer of the app play a part in the patient’s decision-making process, further confirming that state, or tech giant – we just need a track and trace app, and quick.