Big Pharma and care.data

Patients’ identifiable medical data will end up in the hands of large pharmaceutical companies, under the care.data initiative. With “Big Pharma” beholden to shareholders, and its abysmal record on transparency, is this another reason to consider opting out?

We are often told by those publicly defending the care.data programme (I’m thinking particularly of NHS Chief Data Officer Geraint Lewis, and NHS National Director for Patients and Information Tim Kelsey, who at least are prepared to engage with critics – although the latter has a habit of resorting to personal attacks at times) that patients’ identifiable/amber/pseudonymised data will not be made available to commercial organisations to use for their own purposes. So, we are told, it cannot be used for the purposes of selling or administering any kind of insurance, or for marketing purposes. As the pdf of FAQs, to which we are often referred (by Geraint in particular) says

Potentially identifiable data – these data do not include identifiers but may be considered identifiable (e.g. due to a patient in an area having a rare disease or a rare combination of characteristics). There are strict controls around the limited release of such data. For example, there must be a contract in place, the data are only released to approved organisations, and restricted to a specific purposes that will benefit the health and social care system
Let’s ignore for now the awkward question of how these restrictions can effectively be enforced. Let’s also ignore the fact that this data will not simply be “released” – organisations will pay for it, and a commercial organisation, with fiduciary obligations to its owners or shareholders, is not going to pay for something unless there is potential financial benefit.
What I wanted to highlight is that purposes that will benefit the health and social care system will generally boil down to two things: commissioning of services, and research. Regarding the latter, as the NHS Health Research Authority says this can take many forms, and be undertaken by many different bodies, but it will be no big revelation if I point out that vast amounts of research are conducted by, or under the control of, huge pharmaceutical companies – Big Pharma. Doctor and journalist Ben Goldacre has been campaigning for a number of years, following up the lead of others such as Iain Chalmers to expose the fact that an enormous amount of data and results from research – specifcally, admittedly, of clinical trials – is withheld by Big Pharma. This led to the setting-up of the AllTrials campaign. As Ben said, on the publication of a damning report by the Public Accounts Committee into the withholding of trial results for Tamiflu
[the] report is a complete vindication of AllTrials’ call for all the results, of all the trials, on all the uses of all currently prescribed treatments. None of the proposed new legislation or codes of conduct come anywhere close to this simple, vital ask. Industry has claimed it is on the verge of delivering transparency for over two decades. While obfuscating and delaying, ever more results have been withheld. Some in industry now claim that results from even a decade ago may be lost and inaccessible. This is both implausible and unacceptable…We cannot make informed decisions about which treatment is best when vitally important information is routinely and legally kept secret. Future generations will look back at this absurd situation in the same way that we look back on mediaeval bloodletting
This is the same industry which will be able to purchase patients’ identifiable medical data, uploaded from their GP records for research purposes. Will the NHS ever see the results of this research if, for instance, those results could have a potentially adverse effect on the companies’ share prices? Will there be any legal or contractual mechanisms in place to ensure that we don’t see similar obfuscating and delaying, and withholding of results?
Is it really the insurance and marketing companies we need to worry about?

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Filed under care.data, Confidentiality, data sharing, NHS, Privacy

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