How can you share healthcare data and still keep it secure?

Richard Peters

We are living in a world increasingly dominated by digital communications where people are more and more willing to share data. As a B2B tech PR agency, we spend much of our time writing about this here @whiteoakspr.

Facebook, Twitter and all the other social media platforms are powered by the drive to exchange personal information. This has brought huge benefits in building communities and friendships based on open interaction. There always comes a point though when that willingness to share stops and the desire to keep personal data safe and secure holds sway. Understandably, where many people draw the line is around their personal healthcare data.

That’s why some of the latest news headlines have been such a concern. Last week’s cyber-attack on the NHS raised fears that our patient data was under threat. But in terms of patient privacy, at least, other recent news stories have been even more worrying. In a recently leaked letter, Dame Fiona Caldicott, head of the Department of Health’s National Data Guardian, criticised the NHS for a deal it agreed with Google DeepMind.

According to the letter, Google DeepMind received 1.6 million NHS patients’ data on an “inappropriate legal basis”. Back in March, we heard concerns expressed about “enhanced data sharing” potentially allowing sensitive information about individuals to be viewed by health service workers. The list goes on and on.

Yet, on the other side of the coin, technology is also driving more opportunity for people to share information about their own fitness and health in return for personal benefits. The latest fitbits and wearable heart rate and blood pressure monitors offer huge potential for us to personally gather invaluable information which can then be shared with our doctors as part of ongoing treatment plans. We can see a vision of the future where doctors’ prescriptions may be app- rather than paper-based and hospital patients are discharged with software on smartphones and tablets that lets them monitor their condition on an ongoing basis, while collecting data about themselves all the while.

So when it comes to health, in particular, data sharing remains a double-edged sword. It offers vast potential for better ongoing care but the same processes inevitably bring significant risks to personal privacy and confidentiality. At the moment, it is a balancing act between risk and reward.

You can’t help feeling that it shouldn’t have to be like this. We need to find a way forward where people can feel confident in sharing data with the authorities to the benefit of their own health and that of others, without worrying all the time about their privacy and confidentiality being compromised. Sadly, there remains a long way to go.