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Doctors call for greater scrutiny of bidders for platform that pools UK's health info

Supplier 'ethics' in the spotlight after Palantir makes multimillion competition a 'must-win'

A family doctors' conference has called on the UK's medics union to help scrutinize bidders for the NHS Federated Data Platform (FDP) contract to ensure they have a positive track record on security, privacy and ethics.

In London yesterday the BMA's GPs Committee hosted a conference of representatives from England's Local Medical Committees (LMCs) which backed a motion to increase scrutiny of the controversial data system.

Dr Katie Bramall-Stainer, CEO of Cambridgeshire LMC, said recent news reports and comment from the National Data Guardian (NDG) suggested "Palantir have no business being involved" in the £360 million ($435 million) FDP project, for which NHS England is set to start procurement in the coming weeks.

"NHS England is still peddling the line that the procurement hasn't yet started and there are other players bidding for the work," Dr Bramall-Stainer said. "But the new NDG Dr Nicola Byrne – just as her predecessor Dame Fiona Caldicott did – continues to stress the importance of public and professional confidence for the FDP programme's success.

"There are such important lessons to be learned from history to avoid making those mistakes. NHS England has got to keep [those lessons] in mind and engage with our critical themes, because this is so important to our patients and our profession."

The motion backed by the conference, which helps steer policy decisions of the BMA's powerful GPs Committee, calls for the union to work with NHS England to scrutinize organizations submitting tenders to ensure a demonstrable positive track record on security, privacy and ethics.

Mark Coley, leader of the GPs Committee's IT Policy Group, brought the motion. He told The Register: "We are not necessarily saying we need to [scrutinize bidders], but there needs to be scrutiny and it would be for NHS England to come up with a process that commands the trust of the public and the professional alike."

The England LMC conference said the BMA should work with NHS England on four existing secure data platforms supported by the BMA and the Royal College of GPs that could provide "some or all of the requirements" for the FDP. It also said they should "mitigate from the outset against vendor lock-in and ensure the commitments to modern, open working methods."

NHS England began discussing the FDP with suppliers in April. It said the platform would be "an essential enabler to transformational improvements across the NHS."

The FDP would provide "an ecosystem of technologies and services implemented across the NHS in England." The 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 (ICS) 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.

However, campaigners have warned the procurement could offer an unfair advantage to Palantir. The US data analytics company with links to the CIA and immigration service ICE started working with the NHS during the pandemic, accepting a £1 contract for its initial work, then a £23 million ($28 million) contract without competition. That work has been expanded and is set to be rolled into the FDP.

The deal is said to be a "must-win" for Palantir, which has set about poaching senior figures in NHS England's data science and AI teams. Civil service rules determine there should be a six-month gap between civil servants leaving public service and beginning lobbying. ®

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