The Conservative arm of the UK’s coalition government flexed its private-sector-friendly muscles again on Monday with the announcement that the National Health Service should be ‘opened up’ to private healthcare firms. In a speech peppered with buzzwords, Prime Minister David Cameron said: “The end-game is for the NHS to be working hand-in-glove with industry as the fastest adopter of new ideas in the world.”
Cameron went on to outline plans for the establishment of a £180 million Biomedical Catalyst Fund to nurture innovative technologies, more NHS support for patients who wish to be involved in clinical research and an early access scheme to give seriously ill patients access to drugs around a year before they are licenced for general use.
The plans, not surprisingly, have been broadly welcomed by UK pharma and biotech. The BioIndustry Association is looking forward to seeing details of the Biocatalyst Fund “and how it will work to support innovative SMEs facing the ‘valley of death’ funding gap”; the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) called the proposals “a significant step to opening up the NHS to research,” adding that they will “make the UK a more inviting place to locate research and, therefore, investment.” ABPI specifically welcomed plans to give companies more freedom to run clinical trials inside hospitals and “better access to health data (with appropriate protection for patient confidentiality)”.
It is that final (shrewdly-parenthesized) point, alluding to the practice of making patients’ medical records available to private companies, where the government’s plans have attracted real controversy. Patient groups and privacy campaigners have seized on the issue as an affront patient confidentiality. One group, Patient Concern, argued that “records should not be passed around by the Department of Health as they see fit, or sold to private companies without our permission.” The Evening Standard’s Sam Leith began his Monday column with the unequivocal headline: ‘I Don’t Want the State to Sell My Medical Records.’
The UK government has emphasized that NHS records would be made anonymous before being made available to private firms, but it seems that this could be the issue that clouds the ‘blue-sky thinking’ that characterizes the rest of the innovation plans.