Conservative MP David Davis this week slammed the idea of using Google as part of the NHS IT solution as "naïve" and "mad".
Writing in the Sunday Times yesterday, he said: "I could only hope that it was an unapproved kite-flying exercise by a young researcher in Conservative HQ. If not, what was proposed was both dangerous in its own right, and hazardous to the public acceptability of necessary reforms to the state’s handling of our private information."
The kite-flying – if such it was – was reported by Times Online about three weeks ago. An article stated: "Health records could be transferred to Google or Microsoft under a Tory government."
It went on: "Patients will be given the option of moving their medical notes to private companies after the Conservatives said that they would replace Labour’s 'centrally determined and unresponsive national IT system'."
There is a superficial attractiveness to this proposal. Google Health and Microsoft HealthVault are both packages that are capable of taking inputs from medical systems and managing patient records in such a way as to give patients a far greater degree of insight and even control over their own healthcare.
The difficulty is that the systems are clearly structured around the idea of patients accessing views of their records. It is likely that major re-structuring work would be required to make it conform to the requirements of current NHS practice and bureaucracy: to turn it from a patient-facing system to an admin system.
At this point, the advantages of a pre-existing system would sink beneath an avalanche of new systems requirements essential to make the packages conform. It might be as easy – and safer in design terms – to go back to the drawing board and build a system up from scratch.
In his article, David Davis recognises clearly the benefits of giving patients access to their own records. He sounds as though he may well be an advocate of a future government, sweeping aside any red tape that might prevent patients from copying their medical details to Google – if that is what they wish.
However, he is seriously alarmed at the thought of Google (or Microsoft) getting their hands on such sensitive data. He writes: "Google is the last company I would trust with data belonging to me".
In part, that is because Google has a "history of ignoring privacy concerns", citing their "amoral" stance over China. It is in part, too, because the state is not very good at managing megalithic commercial concerns of this kind. There are enormous issues around the anonymisation, management and use of personal data – and without cast-iron guarantees on this front, no deal should be possible.
There are also question marks over where the data is to be hosted – Conservative spokespersons imply in the UK, which may not be Google's preferred solution – and the ownership of such data once it is on Google’s machines.
On the other hand, he suspects that Google may be seeking such a deal for reasons that no UK government could possibly allow: as a research base for data mining and opportunity spotting. In that case, the commercial case for a deal is seriously reduced.
As on previous occasions, Mr Davis appears to have identified and highlighted the key points where IT and privacy issues overlap – and continues to prove himself one of the few MP’s who speaks about technology from a position of genuine comprehension.
In this, he seems at odds with many of his fellow MP’s, whose approach to IT is more akin to buying a toy for its shiny bells and whistles, rather than asking any serious IT questions - like what is its purpose? What objectives is it meant to fulfil?
The only significant omission from Mr Davis' piece was any reference to the embarrassingly close ties that have been documented between David Cameron’s Conservative Party and Google.
According to the Times: "Steve Hilton, one of David Cameron’s closest advisers, is married to Rachel Whetstone, the company’s vicepresident of global communications and public affairs. Mr Cameron flew to San Francisco to address the Google Zeitgeist conference in 2007 at the company’s expense.
"Five months ago, it was announced that Eric Schmidt, Google’s chief executive, was joining a Conservative business forum to advise on economic policy."
These are significant political criticisms of any proposal along the lines quoted. Maybe Mr Davis is right, however: perhaps all such proposals should be considered solely on their IT merit. ®