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Paul Tiffin: Can we tame Big Tech’s big influence on healthcare?

Artificial Intelligence (AI) Innovation Big data Health Public health Machine learning Open government United Kingdom

At the start of the year, Juliet Bauer, chief digital officer for NHS England, announced that she was joining LIVI, an independent provider of remote primary care advice. Months earlier, Michael Macdonnell, NHS England’s national director of Transforming Health Systems, declared he was leaving his role to join DeepMind Health, a subsidiary of Google. When NHS leaders join the private sector they take with them valuable insights into how Big Tech can access Europe’s largest single health market. The traffic goes both ways. Nicola Blackwood, who lost her Oxford parliamentary seat in 2017, was awarded a peerage, permitting her to return to government as minister for innovation. While out of government Blackwood undertook paid work for health sector technology companies such as Eagle Genomics, specialising in big data analytics for the health sciences. 

Matt Hancock has publicly declared his enthusiasm for artificial intelligence (AI) based technology. An article in The Guardian suggested that politicians had been seduced by the positive media coverage of AI, often largely based on the industry’s own press releases. My own view is that it is more complicated than that. The idea that AI will revolutionise the delivery of healthcare plays well into the “personal responsibility” agenda of the current government and nicely distracts from the ongoing workforce crisis. Indeed, Juliet Bauer, while at NHS England, was quoted as saying, regarding health, “We need to move away from the paternalistic, clinician-led culture.” The (not so) latent narrative seems clear; you don’t need to worry about a shortage of mental health workers as you can always chat to “Woebot” about your troubles. We needn’t concern ourselves about cuts to public health as there will be a new, empowering app out soon to let you take control of your own wellbeing without interference from pesky “experts.”

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