Personal Data and the Digital Transformation of the NHS

In 2019 the NHS Long Term Plan was published, including the NHS Digital Transformation Plan. It set out the aim of the NHS to change the way in which healthcare is accessed and provided, supplying digital services to patients and digital tools to staff and providing access to joined up patient records.

The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated this transformation and digital developments have been a key part of the response. Most people will be familiar with the NHS App and the technology that has been deployed in tracking and tracing the infection. Anyone watching Chris Whitty’s slide shows will also be in no doubt as to the part that the effective use of data has played in analysing and responding to the emergency.

Against this background, the Department of Health and Social Care has published a policy paper entitled “Data saves lives: reshaping health and social care with data” setting out its vision of the part that data will play in the digital transformation of the NHS, with the declared mission to “ unleash the unlimited potential of data in health and care, while maintaining the highest standards of privacy, ethics, and accountability.”

The stated intention of the policy is to build upon the momentum of digital transformation driven by the urgency of the pandemic and to harness the power of data in providing better health and social care through better decision making, research and support for healthcare professionals. The paper sets out three key priorities:

  • to build the public’s understanding of how data is used and the potential for data-driven innovation, improving transparency so that members of the public have control over how their data is used;
  • to make appropriate data sharing the norm and not the exception across healthcare, adult social care and public health, to provide the best care possible, and to support staff throughout the health and care system; and
  • to build the right foundations – technical, legal, regulatory – to make that possible

In these regards, while patients and service users will no doubt recognise the benefits of researchers, decision makers and healthcare professionals having ease of access to high quality information, they can nonetheless be expected to have concerns about who will have access to their personal data, how it will be used, what it will be used for and on what terms. Health and care providers are likely to have concerns about what changes they need to make, what training and support their staff will require and where they stand in respect of information governance. Patients and service users will want to know how their personal data will be protected given significant cyber risks in the context of processing such valuable information.

As the paper identifies, the health and care system is huge, levels of technological maturity differ,  and across health and care (from people who access services, to those providing them to those involved in research and innovation) there is a diversity of needs and priorities that need to be taken into consideration.

Over the coming months we will be publishing a Data Series of articles here on BLM’s Health and Care Blog, taking a deeper dive into the policy paper, examining different aspects of the strategy, and considering the issues that present themselves for data subjects, data controllers and health and care professionals on the front line. Stay tuned for the next instalment.

BLM’s Data Breach Unit provides the essential support to businesses facing claims resulting from the accidental loss of data, unintentional misuse of data, and unauthorised or misdirected communications and correspondence.  Find out more about how we can help:  https://www.blmlaw.com/data-breach-unit


Written by Ewan Bright, Associate at BLM (ewan.bright@blmlaw.com)

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