NHS data in spotlight again as Palantir wins new contract

NHS data in spotlight again as Palantir wins new contract

NHS England has awarded a new contract to US data analytics company Palantir to transition existing NHS projects into a new federated data platform (FDP), prompting pushback from organisations unhappy about the tender process.

The 12-month contract – worth £25 million – puts Palantir in strong contention for a £480 million contract to provide the FDP, which would create a single point of access to patient data across NHS England. That contract is expected to be awarded within the next few months.

US-based Palantir – chaired by staunch Donald Trump ally and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel – has been providing data services to the UK government since the start of the pandemic.

According to the bidstats.uk website, the latest contract is designed to make it easier to transition from Palantir’s Foundry platform to the new FDP supplier, specifically referring to “critical products that were developed to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

While that doesn’t indicate that Palantir will be the eventual winner of the tender, a number of groups are concerned that the procurement process has been flawed, secretive, and uncompetitive – locking out potential rivals – and the scope of the project is poorly defined, raising the risk of uncontrolled and spiralling costs. NHS England insists the tender process is fair and open.

There has also been a failure by Palantir to design for patient consent, according to a report sent to MPs yesterday by advocacy non-profit Foxglove and Doctors’ Association UK, raising the risk that the public will lose confidence in a data system managed by a third party.

That could accelerate opt-outs by NHS patients that gathered momentum with the botched GP data-sharing initiative, and undermine the massive potential that NHS data has in improving healthcare and developing new medicines.

The report cites polling from YouGov which found that 48% of UK adults who have not yet opted out are likely to do so if the FDP is run by a private company. It calls for a parliamentary investigation into the FDP procurement and a pause in the tender process while that is carried out.

Foxglove and DAUK also claim that giving the FDPP contract to Palantir will create a “monopoly lock-in” with a company that before the pandemic had “no track record in healthcare.” They maintain that another consortium of UK companies developed and put forward an alternative platform, but “never had a real chance to compete.”

“The government should consult on and design alternatives for managing patient data that better use existing NHS capacity and taxpayer funds,” it concludes. “If external support is required, any system should avoid locking in the NHS into one monopoly provider.”

Among other groups concerned about the outsourcing of systems that handle NHS patient data is the British Medical Association.

Dr David Wrigley, digital lead of the BMA’s GP committee, said: “GPs have long raised concerns about the appropriate use of patient data, and today’s decision by the government to give £25m to a huge US-based multinational company, to do further work on a large NHS patient data project only exacerbates these concerns.”

“The crux of the doctor-patient relationship is trust, and while GPs are supportive of safe and consensual uses of patient data – such as for direct care and legitimate research purposes – we want to see it done in a way that won’t damage the confidence that patients have in the profession, and the care they receive,” he added.