The award of the biggest IT contract in the history of the NHS to US tech giant Palantir has been described as a “terrible deal” by the Doctors’ Association UK (DAUK).
DAUK spokesperson Dr David Nicholl said the seven-year deal for the NHS Federated Data Platform (FDP) – which has been valued by the NHS at £330m – had not undergone sufficient public scrutiny.
Dr Nicholl said: “DAUK has serious concerns about the sale of sensitive and confidential patient data to private companies.
“There has been insufficient public scrutiny of this, what it means for the NHS and for patients, and whether any such deal offers value to the taxpayer, when the NHS does not have a good track record on IT procurement.
“Basic issues of informed consent are being ignored, and this deal could lead to a loss of privacy and seriously erode patient trust.
“It’s a staggering sum of money when there’s been insufficient scrutiny of the deal and it beggars belief that this is the direction of travel, when other options could and should have been looked at, given the less than stellar pilot study of the Federated data platform.
“It’s a terrible deal for the NHS, for taxpayers and, crucially, for patients.”
DAUK has been joined by MPs and campaigners in criticising the contract, saying it will fail unless the government takes urgent steps to preserve value for taxpayer money and shore up patient trust.
Cori Crider, director of campaign group Foxglove, which has been working with DAUK on the issue, said: “Few people who’ve followed Palantir’s four-year blag into the heart of our NHS data will be surprised by the award.
“But there’s so much we still don’t know about the FDP. Will it work? Nearly a third of hospital trials of Palantir’s kit this year seem to have failed, and we still don’t know why. zIf this system isn’t useful to frontline doctors, it risks becoming a half-billion-pound flop.
“The FDP will also fail unless government urgently moves to close the trust gap. Every prior effort to centralise NHS data has failed because people didn’t trust officials to protect their health records from other departments or private companies.
“Reforms to patient choice could save the FDP from the same fate – but right now all we’re hearing is ‘you can’t opt-out’. That’s a mistake. It puts government on a crash course with people’s expectation that they, not officials, should decide what’s done with their health data.”
She added: “Foxglove has fought for years to defend patient trust and public value in the use of NHS data, and we aren’t letting up now.
“We’ve written legal letters seeking the urgent commitments NHS patients need and, if we have to, we will take the government to court again.”
Conservative MP David Davis said: “I am concerned that the decision to hand this huge contract to Palantir will prove a mistake.
No-one who is serious about improving the NHS disputes that the health service must make better use of our collected data. But Palantir, a company with a background in the murky world of espionage and a history of punishing vulnerable people, not protecting them, is not the solution.
“Patients must be able to trust that their personal data will be kept private, protected, and never used in ways they have not consented to.
“It looks like the NHS will try to get around this problem by saying the data is anonymised – but as I have said time and again, that is not good enough. It is virtually impossible to anonymise health data simply because of the density of the data in our health records and it being all too easy for that data to be re-identified.
“It will now be the job of parliament, and its regulatory bodies, to make sure the government puts robust safeguards in place to preserve the delicate balance of trust at the heart of the NHS – because if they don’t, we should be prepared for an almighty backlash that could threaten the long-term health of us all.”
Izzie Jani-Friend, patient leader at campaign group Just Treatment, said: “I tell my doctor things that I wouldn’t tell my own family. Changes in how that information is handled should be done with a huge effort to build public trust. The government have done the opposite – releasing as little information as possible and avoiding public discussion.
“This action hands huge power over our health system to a US spy corporation, putting the future of the NHS as a public service at real risk. I fear many patients like me will react by withdrawing consent or by thinking twice about how much they can trust their private conversations with doctors. I urge the government to reverse course.”
Jan Shortt, general secretary of the National Pensioners’ Convention said: “The NPC is not against the use of data for the positive enhancement of current services, for research and new commissioned services needed to support specific health work.
“But we are unhappy that decisions on data collection, data use, and access to data are not clearly spelled out to patients. Our data is ours and the government must consult with people properly and ensure that no data is taken and used without our consent.”