NHS England considered using Palantir tech to manage strike disruption

But then opted for spreadsheets instead

The UK government considered using technology from Palantir – the US spy-tech firm – to help manage the National Health Service while it was disrupted by severe industrial action. But it ultimately opted to use spreadsheets instead.

The need for local health sector workers to see their wages keep pace with inflation has driven unprecedented disruption to the NHS with junior doctors, nurses, and ambulance staff all staging walkouts. A three-day doctor strike alone could cost the NHS £90 million ($111 million), according to leaked figures.

A secure area called 'strike analysis' was initially set up by NHS England in its Foundry platform, but this was not required as the analysis was able to be carried out using existing methods

In January, Lord Markham, a Conservative peer and health minister, responded to a parliamentary question asking how many users of NHS England's installation of Palantir Foundry software have access to data or dashboards for each purpose listed by publishing a spreadsheet of users and purposes of the data.

In the early days of the pandemic, the NHS contracted Palantir, controversially letting a £23 million ($28 million) contract without competition or prior scrutiny. Since then, the role of Palantir has expanded to extract patient-identifiable data from NHS hospital systems under the Faster Data Flows project.

Among the uses of Palantir's Foundry platform highlighted in the Parliamentary release is a project for "strike analysis." It was a relatively small project, earmarked for just four users, compared with 1,225 looking at the NHS Performance Overview Dashboard and nearly 6,000 using the system for training.

However, in this case the Palantir system, flaunted for its prowess at making sense of NHS data, didn't appear to be the right tool.

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In response to an article by the campaigning journalism website openDemocracy, NHS England said: "In anticipation of the upcoming industrial action, a secure area called 'strike analysis' was initially set up by NHS England in its Foundry platform, but this was not required as the analysis was able to be carried out using existing methods.

"NHS England is not using – and has never used – Foundry to analyze the impact of industrial action, nor is it linking strike data with human resources data," a spokesperson said.

The point of the 'Faster Data Flows' project, was to collect data "in a more streamlined way" to ensure "the NHS is better able to plan and allocate resources to maximise outcomes for patients," NHS England told The Register in November last year.

"Ultimately, it will help all NHS organizations to better understand their waiting lists and pressures in near real time work as systems, and the burden of manual reporting on staff will be significantly reduced," they added.

NHS England said that patients would not be allowed to block the transfer of their data under the National Data Opt-outs programme since the data was due to be "anonymized in accordance with the Information Commissioner Office's Anonymisation Code of Practice before being released."

OpenDemocracy reported last month that health service finance chief Julian Kelly gave NHS trusts until the end of March to begin uploading patient information to a new central database that uses Palantir's Foundry software.

It might seem anomalous, then, that the system supported to help manage "real-time pressure" on the NHS has been deemed unsuitable for understanding the impact of massive disruption to its workforce.

The NHS's work with Palantir is also in the spotlight because the US information analytics company is deemed a front-runner in the £480 million ($593 million) competition to create a Federated Data Platform for the NHS in England, owing to its strong incumbent position. At least some NHS data specialists have voiced concerns about Foundry's user interface and the way it locks the service into Palantir's platform.

The formal procurement for the FDP was launched in January after a series of delays. The government sees the repository as vital to the health system's post-Covid recovery and reform to the NHS. It promises it will be a data store for NHS operational and population health analytics.

In March, campaign groups acting on behalf of doctors and patients threatened legal action over the FDP, as questions about patient consultation and compliance with data protection law remain unanswered. ®

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