NHS England seeks £240m data platform to tackle COVID recovery

Govt org that led controversial Palantir data store seeks overarching system and help to improve services

NHS England is planning the procurement of a data platform with up to £240m million ($312 million) on the table to help in re-organization of the health service and recovering from the COVID-related backlog in care.

The government body responsible for directing £136 billion (circa $176 billion) worth of health service spending in England has set out plans to buy a "Federated Data Platform (FDP)" that it says will be "an essential enabler to transformational improvements across the NHS."

In a tender notice published earlier this month, the non-departmental government body said the FDP would be "an ecosystem of technologies and services implemented across the NHS in England."

The procurement document says FDP will be built on five use cases. They include: population health and person insight; care coordination (Integrated Care System); elective recovery; vaccines and immunization; and supply chain.

Integrated Care Systems or (ICSs) are new partnerships between NHS organizations that meet health and care needs across an area, in the hope of coordinating services and to plan for improvements in the population's health. They are the cornerstone of the 2018 NHS Long Term Plan and were introduced in April 2021.

Launched in February, the NHS elective recovery plan aims to cut the backlog of non-urgent but necessary treatment or operations caused by the pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic on the NHS. Six million people are waiting for elective care, up from 4.4 million before the virus outbreak.

The plan is to improve core digital and data services in hospitals to ensure the NHS has "the basics right."

It is considering introducing new technologies "based on AI and automation."

"We will also use data to drive improvement within the NHS, through using consistent measurement of performance and working with regions and systems to understand and address the reasons behind performance variation," the plan said.

NHS insiders have told The Register of their concerns about the direction of travel in NHS England's data platform procurement. They share fears over the openness of competition and the patient confidentiality of the data to be included in the system. The mix of organizational and medical data is also of concern.

In December 2020, NHS England signed a two-year contract with controversial US spy-tech firm Palantir, without scrutiny, even though the engagement with the health service was originally supposed to be a temporary, emergency measure to help address the pandemic. Via a framework agreement, the deal committed to using Palantir's Foundry platform until December 2022.

In March 2021, the government caved at the threat of a judicial review into its $29.91 million (£23 million) contract with the American AI firm in setting up the NHS COVID-19 datastore. In three key concessions the government has said it cannot offer firms like Palantir a long-term NHS role without consulting the public and that it would not expand Palantir's work on the NHS datastore beyond COVID-19 without notifying the public. At the same time, it has agreed to engage citizens about Palantir's role in the NHS via patient juries.

'Denied' access to datasets

However, in July 2021, NHS England researchers told The Register they were being denied access to datasets on the Palantir platform which supports the COVID-19 data store, with no reason given, despite requests for greater transparency on the system.

Staff were concerned about the lack of clarity when requests are made for data sets on the system built on Palantir's Foundry platform.

In her official oversight of the use of health data, the National Data Guardian declined to endorse NHS England's effort to be transparent with its recently published detail on data flows from patient medical information held by the Palantir data store.

Palantir's technology has been employed by the CIA and controversial US immigration agency ICE. ®

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