Google or Microsoft could hold NHS patient records say Tories

The Times - July 6, 2009
Sam Coates, Chief Political Correspondent

Original text from

Health records could be transferred to Google or Microsoft under a Tory government, The Times has learnt.

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”.

The Tories hope that users will be able to choose from a range of private sector websites, possibly including those operated by Bupa, the healthcare provider. This has raised issues of privacy and security, with MPs and health professionals warning it could hamper doctors’ ability to access medical records quickly in an emergency.

It has also raised questions about the party’s links to Google. 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.

The drive is the first concrete proposal to emerge from the Tories’ “post-bureaucratic age” agenda, in which citizens would be given more government information in order to make choices about public services.

Mr Cameron has repeatedly promised to abolish large IT databases. The National Audit Office has said that Connecting for Health, the electronic patient records programme, will not be completed until 2014, four years late, and is expected to cost £12.4 billion. The recent termination of contracts with key software suppliers could add further to the cost.

Andrew Lansley, the Shadow Health Secretary, has also raised questions over whether it is safe for a central database to store sensitive medical records and has asked the British Computer Society to review the NHS IT programme. It is due to report later in the summer.

A senior Tory source said: “This is an agenda we are massively keen on. We’re thinking about how in government the architecture of technology needs to change, with people ‘owning’ their own data, including their health records.”

The final decision has yet to be taken, and the Google Health and Microsoft HealthVault services that are currently available in the US would need overhauling before they could work in Britain.

The Conservatives have not worked out what would happen to the data of those who do not want their medical records handed to the private sector. The source added: “We are 100 per cent certain there will not be an exclusive deal with one provider. We fully expect multiple providers that will almost certainly be free to users.”

Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat, said: “It leaves a nasty taste in the mouth that there are repeated references to Google given the closeness of Team Cameron to that organisation, and it leaves concerns about commercial advantage being taken.”

A spokesman for the Conservative health team declined to comment.