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Google makes its DeepMind health deal more user-friendly but is this going to be enough?

Google has announced that it’s effectively going to restart the data sharing arrangement between its DeepMind intelligence company and the National Health Service. There will be more transparency, it appears. The questions to consider are what problem such data sharing would solve, and second, whether outsourcing the issue to the private sector can ever be acceptable to the British people.

The first is easily answered with a personal anecdote or two. A few years ago I visited an eye hospital, casualty department. It was in the same building – and shared the same reception and files – as the eye clinic I visited regularly. The doctor, rather than attending to the issue with which I was presenting, started to do some other tests she said were essential. Recognising these tests immediately I pointed out that I was already in the system and she could find a decade of results and progress in the filing cabinet I could see from my chair.

She refused and said she was unable to look at my file, even with my permission. She then – to my mind – wasted an hour repeating tests I’d undergone a month previously. The results were, of course, identical.

Technology could help health

Separately, I had a briefing with an executive from Microsoft on an idea they had, a health “vault”. The idea was that a patient would have all of their health records in one place, whether at the doctor’s surgery or held centrally by Microsoft, and they would have a digital key. Any health professional could then get to the information and add to it subject to the right security clearance, so those occasions on which the dentist asks “are you on any medication” and you can’t remember what the damned thing is called, the times you’ve overlooked (or didn’t know) that you weren’t supposed to take aspirin on top of your blood pressure medication, would be eliminated.

Google is proposing something subtly different but the issue it faces, particularly in the UK, is the same one Microsoft put to me a decade or more ago. The system can work as efficiently as you like and be as impregnable as any modern technology will allow. Getting the patient to trust it is another thing entirely.

Part of this, and only part of it, is the issue of privatising any element of the health service in the UK. People are happy to overlook the fact that their general practitioner is and has always been an independent business, contracted to the NHS. The big stuff, however, they like to source centrally from the NHS itself.

This is combined with two elements of recent history. First, although Google isn’t a traditional outsourcing company, the word “outsourcing” combined with “public sector” carries a negative connotation in spite of the many successful engagements over the years. A handful of contracts going wrong have soured the pot for a great many players.

Second, and equally importantly, any new system would be as impregnable as modern technology allows, as I said above. However, modern technology has seen the US Navy among others face a data security breach. It’s possible that patients might not welcome the same state of the art security being applied to their medical records.

This factor isn’t actually part of using a third party. Nonetheless, with the amount of breaches reported by high profile organisations over the last few years, you can understand that people might be reluctant to accept major changes.

Google and the NHS will have a tricky job selling what’s probably a perfectly good and secure system to the British public.