Care.Data – A post-mortem

After several stop-start years, the Government’s long awaited Care.Data project to digitise NHS patient records is officially dead. RIP.

The goals of the project were certainly admirable. By embracing digital records, the NHS – which deals with thousands of documents every year – can become vastly more cost effective, secure and eco-friendly. That’s not to mention the potential lives that could be saved though the quick and easy sharing of medical data.

Sadly however, not every idea works as well in practice as it does in theory. This is especially true in IT. Every IT/digital project has its own unique challenges and the Care.Data programme always looked like it was having more than most. Even the process of installing broadband in a new office, for example, can be a nightmare.

Now think of a national IT project with vast amounts of sensitive healthcare data, disparate and disjointed data silos and the introduction of numerous third party suppliers at every point in the process. In short, Care.data was always going to be a mammoth technical challenge. Unfortunately though, it never really made it this far. Instead, it fell at the very first hurdle, public perception.

I believe it is important for the NHS to have a centralised digital database but the Government needed to get the public on side first. This should’ve been priority number one but, instead, the campaign was dogged by confusion, miscommunication and controversy at every turn. The public can be fickle at the best of times, doubly so when it comes to politics. It’s easy to see why people may have felt mislead by the Care.Data programme, especially when news spread that drug and insurance firms were able to buy patient data, including mental health records.

Indeed, health data is deeply and inherently personal and this was the crux of the Care.Data failure. Whether because of future employment, insurance or just personal confidentiality, there are all manner of reasons why members of the UK public wouldn’t want their health records shared with third parties. That’s assuming they stay where they’re intended. There have been numerous high profile data breaches this year alone and, should this data fall into the wrong hands, one can only imagine the recrimination. Transparency is the key to success for all future projects. People need to be confident that their most personal data is protected using state of the art cyber security technology. They also need to know exactly who will have access to their data and how it will be used. At no point did the Government offer such assurances for Care.Data and, in future, it will need to create much stricter regulations regarding the companies looking to buy and profit from NHS data especially. 

The need for the NHS to digitise is growing by the day. It can’t rely on 19th or 20th century technologies in this day and age, and the new Government sorely needs to find new solutions to long standing problems. Even with the best intentions, without increased regulations and public support from the very start, any future plans to implement a centralised medical database are destined for failure – just like Care.Data was. From there, the Government needs to choose the right IT project team. With so many variables and so much at stake for the public and Government alike, the project team needs specialist knowledge of working on public sector and NHS projects.

Likewise, the project drew a lot of criticism for bringing in third party suppliers from outside the UK, such as Google, and the Government could easily remedy this by employing on-shore IT contractors who have local knowledge and understand the complexities and sensitivities around working in the NHS.

Bhuwan Kaushik is CEO at Spectromax Solutions

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