Palantir, with intimate ties to defense, intelligence and security industries around the world, seems set to play an even larger role in the UK’s crisis-ridden National Health System (NHS).
Last summer, as readers may recall, executives at NHS England — the non-departmental government body that runs the National Health Service in England — came up with an ingenious plan to digitally scrape the general practice data of up to 55 million patients and share it with any private third parties willing to pay for it. NHS England allowed patients to opt out of the scheme; they just didn’t bother telling them about it until three weeks before the deadline, presumably because if they had, millions of patients would have opted out.
When the FT finally broke the story, a scandal erupted. NHS England officials responded by shelving the scheme, saying they needed to focus on reaching out to patients and reassuring them their data is safe. But that hasn’t happened. Instead, they have waited for the scandal to die down before embarking on an even more egregious scheme.
This time it is patient data from UK hospitals that is up for grabs. And patients will have no opt-out option. In fact, without even consulting patients, NHS England has instructed NHS Digital — which will soon be merged with NHS England as part of the UK’s governments accelerated reforms to the NHS’ “tech agenda” — to gather patient data from NHS hospitals and extract it to its data platform, which is based on Palantir’s Foundry enterprise data management platform.
The pretext for taking such a step is that researching and analyzing patients’ hospital data will help the NHS better understand and tackle the crisis in treatment waiting times resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. But the result will be yet more private-sector involvement in essential NHS processes. And in this case, the company being involved in those processes is one of the darkest in the tech universe.
A Highly Coveted Prize
The NHS is the world’s seventh largest employer. And it is home to one of the richest repositories of patient data on the planet. “One of the great requirements for health tech is a single health database,” Damindu Jayaweera, head of technology research at UK investment bank Peel Hunt told Investors’ Chronicle. “There are only two places as far as I know that digitise the data of the whole population from birth to death… China and the UK.”
As the FT reported earlier this year, Palantir aspires to become the underlying data operating system for the NHS. To that end, it has already lured two senior NHS managers to its executive suites, including the former chief of artificial intelligence. It now has its sights set on the ultimate prize: a five-year, £360 million contract to manage the personal health data of millions of patients…
Palantir’s latest encroachment into NHS operations came to light thanks to the publication of board paper’s just hours before NHS Digital’s latest board meeting, on November 1. Those papers no longer seem to be accessible so I am relying on a report published on Friday 4 by The Register, a British technology news website, as well as a heavily detailed twitter thread by Phil Booth of MedConfidential, a group campaigning for confidentiality and consent in health and social care.
According to Booth, on page 158 of the board papers NHS England instructs NHS Digital to use Palantir Tech’s Foundry platform to “collect patient-level identifiable [hospital] data pertaining to admission, inpatient, discharge and outpatient activity from acute care settings on a daily basis.”
Following previous data debacles, both the NHS and UK government ministers had pledged that in future any patient data shared for research and analysis purposes would be anonymized. But now they are talking about using “pseudonymized” data, which is completely different…
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