Private Health Meets Big Data
Sam Bright explores the collaboration between two tech giants, and what this means for the future of healthcare
In the UK, there is a political debate raging about the Omicron Coronavirus variant and its impact on the NHS. As the new strain sweeps rapidly through the country, an informal lockdown may soon lead to more prescriptive public restrictions, as ministers seek to prevent a wave of patients from overwhelming the health service.
Once again, GPs have been instructed to delay ‘non-essential’ care and instead to focus on delivering COVID-19 booster jabs – considered to be the primary firewall against Omicron.
As England’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, stressed in evidence to MPs last week: while these measures may temporarily limit the ability of the NHS to deal with non-COVID care, the absence of any action whatsoever would throw the system into “deep, deep trouble”.
Already under strain from a decade of austerity and an ageing population, the ambition during the Coronavirus pandemic has not been to maintain an efficient public health system, but to prevent its entire breakdown. But this has presented an opportunity for private firms – companies that can shoulder some of the extra burden that has been imposed on the NHS.
Babylon Health is one of these firms.
A British health provider that uses technology to improve patients’ access to health services and data, as reported by Forbes in May 2020, the popularity of the firm’s ‘GP at Hand’ service – offering mobile GP consultations – surged during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, with 140,000 UK registrations.
Babylon has signed agreements with several NHS trusts – mainly in London – to provide its GP at Hand service, effectively integrating a private firm into the day-to-day operating of GP surgeries.
The firm has also expanded globally and has trained its artificial intelligence (AI) equipment on revolutionising healthcare. Babylon claims that it “manages” some 350,000 lives across 16 different countries, delivering 1.3 million consultations in the first half of 2021. Earlier this year, the firm listed on the New York Stock Exchange with a $4.2 billion valuation.
Babylon’s gold mine – and a large source of controversy surrounding the company – is its access to data. The firm has “access to 80 billion data points”, according to its press releases, stemming from the information and the actions of patients and consultants on Babylon platforms.
Marshalling this data, in the words of the company, will subsequently allow Babylon to “re-engineer” how people experience care “at every step of the healthcare continuum”.
“The goal is to support Babylon’s consenting members with the insights with which to better understand their health,” the firm states. Namely, it seems, Babylon hopes to use this data to provide proactive health information for its users.
Deploying massive amounts of data allows health firms to spot trend in symptoms and illnesses – warning patients of potential medical issues, based on information collated from other users, potentially before they even arise. For example, the system may warn a patient that they have a high risk of a certain disease, based on the shared symptoms and behaviours of other patients who have suffered the same illness.
Babylon describes this as “flipping the model” from “reactive sick care to proactive healthcare” – an approach that is particularly appealing for policy-makers, as it theoretically allows individual health issues to be spotted sooner, allowing action to be taken before the patient becomes sick and the burden on the public health system.
However, 80 billion data points are useless without a tech machine to process and interpret the information. For this, therefore, Babylon has turned to a collaborator: Palantir.
A US-based firm, Palantir has become a world leader in AI and data processing in recent years. The company’s ‘Foundry’ platform creates a “central operating system” for the analysis of data, according to the firm, and was founded after Palantir realised that “companies routinely struggle to manage let alone make sense of the data involved in large projects”.
Palantir’s technology is used by the US Department of Defense, and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement – but has not been limited to the United States. Palantir also has secured more than £104 million in contracts from UK government departments and agencies – spanning GCHQ, the Ministry of Defence, the NHS, Department of Health and Social Care, the Cabinet Office, and the police.
Perhaps most notably, Palantir worked with Amazon, Microsoft, Google and Faculty to build and operate a COVID-19 datastore in the UK described as a “single source of truth” for Government decision-making.
The construction of this datastore was called an “unprecedented” transfer of patient data to private firms. Palantir was subsequently awarded a £23 million contract to process health data, the details of which were only released after legal pressure. The Government agreed not to press ahead with the contract, saying that Palantir would not be offered “a long-term role in the NHS without public consultation”.
However, this doesn’t appear to be limiting Palantir’s ambitions. In the prospectus for its floatation on the New York Stock Exchange last year, the firm said that it planned to “become the default operating system across the US government”. As reported by Byline Times last summer, the firm was assisting more than a dozen countries with their Coronavirus responses.
The collaboration with Babylon, which has allegedly achieved ‘substantial progress’, may therefore represent a way for Palantir to work in the health sector without such intense scrutiny. While the Babylon-Palantir partnership explicitly only accounts for the US health sector currently, both have a foot in the UK market – Palantir employs more people in London than at its US headquarters – and NHS data is estimated to be worth some £10 billion a year.
The evolution of preventative care would of course be a welcome development. Anticipating illnesses before they arise will save countless lives and relieve pressure on strained health services.
However, there are legitimate questions to be asked about whether private companies should hold the power to profit from these medical advances, the transparency with which they are processing personal data, and ultimately whether preventative care will be reserved to those who can afford the service.
These questions are particularly pertinent, given the political links of both Palantir and Babylon.
The controversial founder of Palantir, Peter Thiel, has been politically outspoken in recent years. He addressed the Republican Party’s National Convention in 2016, when Donald Trump accepted its nomination for President, predicting that the businessman would lead an American resurgence. In the same year, Thiel donated $1.25 million to Trump’s campaign and adjacent political causes.
Controversial figures have also been associated with Babylon – not least Dominic Cummings, the former Downing Street chief aide and the head of the Vote Leave campaign. Cummings worked for the health firm until September 2018, advising on its communications strategy and its senior recruitment. Following his departure from Downing Street, Cummings has also seemingly tried to resume his work for Babylon.
Indeed, there appears to have been a clamour to support Babylon from within the Government, with former Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock having praised the firm as “revolutionary” in 2018. During an interview sponsored by the company, Hancock said that it was one of the healthcare apps on his own smartphone.
It later emerged that shareholders in Babylon had donated to the Conservative Party and to Hancock’s 2019 Conservative leadership bid – though Babylon said that the company had never made political donations and that any political donations made by a few of its many shareholders were not linked to the firm’s success. Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund has also invested in the firm.
Ultimately, private firms will always chase profits – while the role of the Government is to develop regulations and constraints to ensure that private actions benefit the public good, particularly in the field of healthcare. In this regard, though, the Government’s record does not inspire confidence.
Earlier this year, before a U-turn, the Government was accused of secretively attempting a healthcare data grab – only offering a poorly-publicised opt-out for individuals who sought to keep their data from being shared across the NHS and potentially with private firms. Concerns around the move were exposed by Byline Times.
Healthcare and data processing are profitable industries, but both are open to exploitation. Unfortunately, it does not appear that the Government is currently willing, or able, to put the proper safeguards in place.
Additional reporting by Max Colbert and John Lubbock
This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.