Private medical records from England’s National Health Service have been uploaded in their entirety to Google BigQuery servers adding to the ailments afflicting the 65 year old government health care service.
The NHS was originally founded in 1948 with a creed of service, “from each according to their ability as each according to their needs.” Under this banner, the service operates free of charge for all legal British residents with a general practitioner, or GP, as the first contact point for any and all medial issues. The service is funded completely by public taxation, though no specific tax or levee is made for the service.
The service has been plagued by numerous controversies and scandals with waiting lists being among the most common complaint. Patients with non-essential surgeries can find themselves waiting upwards of two years as more serious surgeries will be put in front of them. The Telegraph also reported on the decisions that lead to the infamous “death panel” controversy. For the NHS, what began as a way to ease the passing of terminally ill cancer patients by removing food, fluids and medications in favor of sedation was passed onto over 300 hospitals for conditions that government watchdog groups said did not call for and end of life procedure.
The latest issue is what the National Health Service has done to private medical records by uploading them to Google BigQuery servers.
— Sarah Wollaston MP (@drwollastonmp) March 3, 2014
Google’s BigQuery servers are not connected to the search engine that the majority of the world uses everyday. The NHS medical records were instead uploaded to Google’s powerful project management servers which allows for companies or organizations who do not have their own database program to use Google’s instead. The benefit is that all of the NHS inpatient, outpatient and A&E data is now easily searchable within the National Health Service for the use of internal records, interactive maps to track illness within communities and other benefits that can make the service more productive. The problem lies in the fact that NHS was not the company who uploaded the data.
PA Consulting, a private consulting tech firm that operates in both the public and private sector had secured the HES data from National Health Service hospitals and uploaded the entire database to the Google servers. According to the PDF released from the consulting firm the results were better than expected.
“Within two weeks of starting to use the Google tools we were able to produce interactive maps directly from HES queries in seconds.”
With the entire UK medical records digitized and stored in a central location, the concern over who has access to this data has reached a peak as the NHS has also stated that the private medical records of patients will be for sale to university research teams, insurance companies and drug companies. The data would be scrubbed so that no personal identifiable information would be included in the sold information, a process known as “pseudonymisation”. In pseudonymisation, identifying fields in a record are replaced by false information or pseudonyms.
Even with NHS private medical records scrubbed in this way, the centre’s public assurance director Mark Davies told The Guardian that there is still a “small chance” that insurers and other health companies could match the scrubbed data with their own internal data and be able to determine who people are. If someone wants to opt-out they need only inform their GP and a “note” will be placed on their medical records to not include them in the NHS database. A massive mailing to the UK people also has been sent out from the NHS detailing the information about the selling of information for the betterment of health care.
The information available to purchase will include the person’s NHS number (the UK equivalent of the US Social Security Number), date of birth, postcode, ethnicity and gender.
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