The truth behind the Google/Microsoft/NHS rumours

Before Monday July 6th, did you know that Google and Microsoft had services for storing health records? Thanks to an article in the Times and some related hysteria in other media, just about the whole country discovered that, "David Cameron was going to replace the bloated and expensive NHS computer system with a free one from Google. Or maybe Microsoft."

Except, of course, someone got hold of the wrong end of the stick. Let's face it, whatever we think of the NHS and its evolving computer system, it's not going to be replaced by a packaged service from anyone. Never mind that Google and Microsoft (and maybe BUPA) are supposedly the front runners.

No-one likes overspends on computer projects. And the NHS one due for delivery in 2014 – four years late and at a cost of £12.4bn – presents a wonderful target for the Tories. This seems to have been what caused all the excitement. From £14.2bn to 'free' at the stroke of a pen. Wow!

Who on earth thinks that commercial organisations like Google, Microsoft or BUPA will do anything for free? And who but the most naive will think that moving shedloads of detailed health records from one system to another is going to happen without horrendous cost and risk?

Still, it was a great headline and it, rather unexpectedly, put 'Google Health' in the frame. Whether involved or not, Rachel Whetstone, Google's Vice President, Public Policy and Communications, must be feeling jolly pleased with the outcome. (Incidentally, she's married to Steve Hilton, one of David Cameron's closest advisors. She dropped out of politics after a spell as Michael Howard's chief of staff during his failed election campaign. Oops, wrong horse.)

So what's the reality? The Google (Health) and Microsoft (HealthVault) systems both manage personal health records, or PHRs. They provide somewhere to create, store and share your personal health information and allow you to find related infomation, engage with health professionals and manage your medications. Both put the user in control of content and both are free to the user. This has little to do with the £14.2bn NHS system. At best it would take care of one element of it, the so-called 'Spine' Care Record Service (CRS) but with less information and more restricted access. Medical professionals need access to all manner of detailed information if they're to do their jobs properly and they're simlpy not going to get that from the personally-filtered subset of a person's medical information that the PHRs represent.

What's on offer smacks of a, "let's get to know your medical issues so we can fire appropriate ads at you". If not, one has to ask what the commercial motivations of Microsoft and Google are. Maybe it's to flog extra services: "Monitor your blood pressure, madam?" or "Remind you to take your pills, sir?"

With the baby boomers reaching retirement age, the market for health-related products and services is exploding. An increasing proportion are computer literate and have their own PCs and internet connections. And nothing is on their minds more than their health. (Okay, maybe their grandchildren and their pets.)

But let's not get carried away by recent newspaper reports. This is not David Cameron single-handedly demolishing the NHS IT budget. Sure, we'd love to enter what the Tories call a "post bureaucratic age", but let's start by getting rid of all the deeply intrusive information that the government already stores about us first.

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