US data platform will clear NHS waiting lists more quickly, says Health Secretary

Palantir is best known for its US military data platforms
Palantir is best known for its US military data platforms - REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

Waiting backlogs will be cleared quicker under a new NHS data platform run by a US tech giant, the Health Secretary has suggested.

Palantir – the company founded by Peter Thiel, a US billionaire Republican party donor – will lead a group which has just been awarded a five-year £330m contract to manage a software system across the health service.

The process has been dogged by controversy, and concerns about the way sensitive data will be handled by a company best known for its links with the US military.

Health officials have repeatedly stressed that no company involved in the Federated Data Platform will be able to access any health and care data, without explicit permission of the NHS.

Announcing the award of the contract, Victoria Atkins, the Health Secretary, said clinicians working on pilot schemes have found it “game changing” in helping to manage waiting lists, and get more patients treated.

The platform will pull together real-time data, such as bed numbers, staff rotas, waiting list information, and availability of medical supplies and social care places.

Ms Atkins said pilot schemes cut waiting lists and delayed discharges, while boosting theatre utilisation, with an extra 120 patients treated per trust, per month. If such changes were mirrored across the country, it could mean an extra 25,000 patients treated monthly.

She told the Commons that the platform “will support key priorities of the NHS, including recovery of elective care and the improvement of discharge processes to get medically fit patients treated and home quicker”.

One trust testing the system cut long stays by one third, officials said.

Under the deal, Palantir will be supported by Accenture, PwC, NECS and Carnall Farrar, NHS England said.

The data platform is only for direct patient healthcare and planning, meaning it cannot be passed on for research or any other purposes.

No right to opt out

This also means patients have no right to opt out, with officials fearful that any backlash against the deal could have a knock on impact on medical research – where an opt-out does exist.

Palantir was co-founded by billionaire tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel, who was an early backer of former US president Donald Trump, and has worked with the US government.

Its chief executive, Alex Karp, said: “This award is the culmination of 20 years of developing software that enables complex, sensitive data to be integrated in a way that protects security, respects privacy and puts the customer in full control.

“There is no more important institution in the UK than the NHS and we are humbled to have now been chosen to provide that software across England to help bring down waiting lists, improve patient care and reduce health inequalities.”

Last month, Mr Karp said NHS patients’ data will be safe in his company’s hands and that NHS problems – including record high waiting lists of 7.77 million – are “not solvable without technology”.

Dr Vin Diwakar, NHS national director for transformation, said “better use of data is essential for the NHS to tackle waiting times, join up patient care and make the health service sustainable for the future”.

He added: “Patients come to the NHS at some of the most vulnerable points in their lives, and they want to know that our healthcare teams have access to the best possible information when it comes to their treatment and care.

“This new tool provides a safe and secure environment to bring together data, which enables us to develop and deliver more responsive services for patients and will help the health service drive the recovery in elective care.”

Health officials said “no company involved in the Federated Data Platform can access health and care data without the explicit permission of the NHS”.

‘Sketchy overseas outfit’

The award of the contract to the US firm has sparked controversy, with critics on Tuesday night describing it as a “sketchy overseas outfit” which was not aligned with the NHS ethos.

The British Medical Association said the decision to award the contract to Palantir, was “deeply worrying” saying they “eye-watering” sums were desperately needed for direct patient care.

Prof Andrew Morris, director of Health Data UK (HDR UK) at the National Institute for Health Data Science, said “whole system intelligence” using up to date information was vital to support treatment and care.

But he said there was a risk that those with concerns about the system would end up using opt outs which would not take their data out of the platform – but would mean losses from medical research.

Prof Morris said: “We are worried that concerns about the platform may lead people to use opt-outs that will have no impact on the Federated Data Platform but will harm important medical research.

“Public confidence and demonstrating trustworthiness is crucial.”

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 1 month, then enjoy 1 year for just $9 with our US-exclusive offer.