Mary Dejevsky: What's new? The NHS already sells our data


Click to follow
The Independent Online

David Cameron got himself into a spot of unnecessary bother this week because advance reports of an initiative to make patients' data available to drug companies appeared not to make absolutely clear that it would – in the jargon – be "anonymised".

Thus something that was designed as a good-news story – "NHS patients will help speed up the development of new medicines" – became a bad-news story: "Your personal data will be sold to the wicked pharmaceutical companies". And all this hours before the Prime Minister had even uttered a word. Such are the risks of news management.

It turns out, of course, that the data will be "anonymised" – that is, compiled in such a way that it will not be traceable back to the individual patient. As was only to be expected. And if it is anonymised, should the NHS not be able to make money from it – money that can be ploughed back into new treatments or patient care?

Which is not to say that there is no issue with patient privacy, only that the hue and cry that preceded Mr Cameron's speech – not least, I suspect, because he is seen as rather closer to the business-end than the patient-end of medicine – would have been better directed elsewhere. And specifically at the widespread dissemination of other people's data by those whose job it is to protect it.

At the phone-hacking inquiry last week, the singer Charlotte Church, testified that word about her first pregnancy could have been obtained through hacking. Another source, however, could well have been a medical professional in the know.

Oh, yes, this happens. How else was I bombarded by text messages offering me legal services to sue, within days of being treated at A&E for a broken foot? Why else might my husband have received mail-shots offering pricey private diagnostics for stroke risk, within a couple of weeks of being prescribed the anti-clotting drug, Warfarin? Or brochures for medical equipment in the weeks after an operation? And how come birthdays are preceded by offers for life insurance, or, more menacingly last time around, an invitation to engage in some forward planning, given that "funeral costs are rising fast".

Coincidence, of course, cannnot be excluded. But the leakage of personal information, including date of birth, postal address, mobile phone number and medical ailments, is now endemic, and not a few individuals, I would hazard, are benefiting mightily. If anyone is going to earn money from our data, is it not better by far that it should be the NHS?

Tear down those walls!

When the Iron Curtain disintegrated, out too went the dingy nets and broken blinds that had kept the light out of historic buildings across East and Central Europe. Letting the sunshine in was a mark of the new, more optimistic, more transparent order. So I was delighted to find that the Mall Galleries – at the Trafalgar Square end of this magnificent thoroughfare – is to remove its Sixties-era internal walls to expose its elegant windows.

Let those of a troglodytic disposition complain, but in my book it was a crime to block out some of the most glorious views in London. Now the ICA next door should open up the windows of its café, so we can clink glasses while admiring the vistas of St James's Park.