British history is marked by innovation, exploration and a commitment to societal welfare – all of these positives are reflected in the argument for greater use of health data. So why are we being anxious, rather than embracing some of our best traits?
It’s a general rule of thumb that if you asked the British public to define “Britain”, the NHS is likely to come up high on the list. Yes, the NHS represents quintessential Britishness – egalitarian, remarkably organised, the envy of the world and full of idiosyncrasies. So if the NHS is an ultimate symbol of Britain, what exactly do we want Britain to be?
There’s been much talk of moving to a knowledge economy – one where Britain sells its unique insights, skills and intelligence to the global market. For a whole host of reasons, this is what we should want Britain to be. The knowledge economy would see our fair nation complete the transition from industrial to manufacture to service age and beyond.
If we want Britain to be a knowledge economy, and the NHS is one of the ultimate symbols of Britain, why are we so reluctant and fearful of advances and developments that have the potential to enrich the way the NHS runs and makes decisions? Why would we not enable the NHS to have greater knowledge about the needs of it users and the outcomes of the service it provides?
Yes, I am talking about data. Correctly applied, data has the power to enhance our knowledge in healthcare – not just about the clinical effectiveness of singular interventions, but also in terms of co-morbidity management, social care impact and understanding what people and patients truly value from healthcare services. Using data in this kind of way completely aligns with the high-level strategic needs of our evolving healthcare system that have been identified by experts. So why do we collectively remain anxious? And perhaps more importantly, why have these issues not been presented to the British public for dialogue and debate – why has concern been allowed to grow?
The “NHS data debate” has been bubbling away in traditional media in the last few weeks, with more and more sections of society reported to express distrust of data collection and use within the NHS. Once again, the big issues of privacy and trust have been referenced, even though little consideration was given to existing data privacy laws, the anonymisation of data, the important role of regulators like the MHRA and the much broader fact that the healthcare industry is an important driver of the knowledge economy.
Like many other issues facing our society (such as EU membership, the devolved nations, investment in the humanities), it would appear that the important considerations associated with the use of data within health (and not just NHS records) are not being adequately shared with the public and the required levels of public debate aren’t happening. I can’t help but wonder why this is the case, given communicators find themselves in a period of time with unprecedented channels and platforms for engaging the public?
I can only hope that voices in favour of data usage to improve our collective health are heard and given courteous consideration. Through debate, and experience, attitudes gradually change. Only a few years ago, most of us wouldn’t have given consideration to aggregated views about holiday destinations – now we embrace this knowledge to inform our decisions. We wouldn’t have invested in crowd-sourced initiatives, but things like KickStarter are becoming the norm. We wouldn’t have believed Wikipedia – but now people consider it an appropriate information source. Once the utility of health data is debated, and then experienced, I am sure the tide will change. This willingness to embrace change and innovation is also quintessentially British – it’s time to become our best. Do you agree?