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2019 – Transformation and Data in Digital Health

Updated: Dec 16, 2019

Technology in healthcare continues to be transformational, improving effectiveness in treatment, efficiency of administration, and accuracy of technical tools. Alongside technological advancement, we are seeing a trend towards greater patient involvement with their own health and care. Whether controlling care pathways or as a contributor to collective patient data used to innovate, digital innovation is facilitating bespoke healthcare services. Osborne Clarke has hosted events where healthcare innovators pitch their ideas to the audience who then invest in the worthiest cause. Several pitchers focus on artificial intelligence, including in robotics to calibrate devices, and 3D printing for prosthetics.

Better established, the use of health and fitness tracking devices is clinically widespread. Wearables have changed clinical practices and care pathways, for example, through increased use in clinical trials and the use of apps in general clinical care, such as the management of chronic conditions like diabetes. A huge volume of data is generated by these devices, resulting in a) an expansion of what is considered 'health' data, b) an increased awareness of that data, and c) greater potential for such data to be analysed. Big health data is positive but raises ethical and legal issues.

Any use of this data – commercial or clinical – must be designed from inception with transparency and patient privacy in mind. Meeting these legal requirements is increasingly complex as those types of data increase and their impact is less easy to predict. Technological developments have resulted in an ability to analyse data in a way not envisaged when collected.

Digital innovation is facilitating bespoke healthcare services

A public wakeup call was the sanction placed on the Royal Free NHS Foundation Trust by the Information Commissioner's Office in 2017, for working with Google’s DeepMind to analyse 1.6 million patient records to test an alert, diagnostic, and detection service for acute kidney damage. The Information Commissioner’s Office ruled that the Royal Free failed to adhere to its obligations under the Data Protection Act, including ensuring it maintained sufficient transparency with the data subjects and to keeping them informed as to how their data would be used. Elizabeth Denham, Information Commissioner, says: "There’s no doubt the huge potential that creative use of data could have on patient care and clinical improvements, but the price of innovation does not need to be the erosion of fundamental privacy rights."

In the UK, there is another elephant in the room. The NHS has unique volumes of data with unique applications. A policy of decentralisation has led to each NHS unit using its own records management systems, which struggles to interface with other systems within the same trust, never mind with the wider NHS. The NHS's much maligned National Programme for IT – the aim of which was to centralise and fully digitise the NHS's electronic patient systems – was a costly failure that has resulted in a reluctance to progress large-scale integration.

So, what next? There is a clear desire from government to break down these barriers, as seen by the Department of Health and Social Care's draft code of conduct for data-driven health and care technology, which proposes a set of principles to be adhered to by both the NHS and innovators to enable greater innovation while adhering to regulation and best practice. Might this unlock the potential for NHS data?

Osborne Clarke regularly share digital health insights on

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