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NHS app needs to empower patients not monitor them, says health leader

NHS app needs to empower patients not monitor them, says health leader
By Beth Gault
14 March 2024

Leaders need to communicate to patients that the NHS app is there to empower them and not to monitor them, the NHS Confederation CEO has said.

Speaking at the Digital Health Rewired conference in Birmingham this week (12-13 March), Matthew Taylor told NHS leaders that as the app grows in scope and function, that they will need to ‘constantly emphasise’ this.

‘I do think that the NHS App can be a game changer,’ said Taylor. ‘It could potentially be the one stop shop for health information for monitoring our health and for CRM [customer relationship management] engagement with the health service. That is the potential.’

However, he added that there was work to be done on the communication of this to patients.

‘We know from the history of this stuff that you don’t have to instil a great deal of doubt and fear in the public for things to lose public support,’ he said.

‘So, we’re going to have to be careful as we develop the app that we constantly emphasis that it is about empowering and enabling people, and not about monitoring or controlling people.’

Taylor suggested a way to give people confidence in the technology was to introduce it at school level, allowing young people to become familiar with it.

‘When you think about something like that [NHS app], let’s not just think about the technological capacity for it. But let’s think about it as a much more profound shift in how people feel about their health and their interaction with the health service – and the degree to which they can be in control of that,’ he said.

Governance of data gathering

The gathering and sharing of data within the health service was also discussed at the conference, with leaders emphasising that work needs to be done to ensure this is governed in the right way.

Speaking on primary care data in a later session, Dr Vin Diwakar, interim national director for transformation at NHS England, said: ‘Access to data – not just about primary care data but access to all data – we need to make sure is governed in the right way so it’s there for the right purpose. There’s a lot of work to be done in the months to come.’

However, he added that he had ‘never met’ a GP or someone working in primary care who did not know the importance and value of data in population health or in research.

‘For me, it’s more about the safeguards around it to make sure it’s within the right guardrails, so it’s done for public good and not for any other means.’

Dr Jessica Morley, postdoctoral researcher at Yale Digital Ethics Centre, also spoke on this, saying existing models of governance around collecting health data were ‘woefully outdated’.

‘That is every single aspect of the law, from data protection law all the way through to visibility to discrimination, law, liability, and medical ethics,’ she said.

‘We need to recognise that digital health is a public health intervention and not a personalised health intervention, we need to treat it and regulate and govern it as such. We need to recognise that the system needs to focus its attention on information needs rather than information wants.’ 

It follows the call for urgent action to prevent potential AI harm in healthcare by an independent inquiry earlier this week.

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