UK – Government get health priorities wrong, and are still determined to get your DNA

DNAThe government seem to be in cloud-cuckoo land again with their latest initiative to save money in the NHS. According to health secretary Jeremy Hunt, he wants the NHS to be paperless by 2018.

This sounds familiar. In fact it sounds very much like the ‘National Programme for IT’ in the NHS started by Labour that was a £12.7 billion disaster, and which was scrapped by the coalition government when it came to power.

The ‘National Programme for IT’ was a monumental waste of public money, resulting in a system that the health service could not use, and which cost NHS trusts more wasted money through trying to sort out the problems the system created. The £12.7 billion could have paid for 60,000 nurses for a decade.

An offshoot of this disaster was that health authorities then chose their regional IT systems, and many of those have proven to be bad choices, again wasting the time of staff in using them, and costing more money to try and ‘force’ the systems to work.

Now the Health Secretary reckons that £4 billion or more a year will be saved by the NHS when they do finally go paperless. Of course, there is no estimate of how much this is going to cost the tax payer, and no doubt that whatever figure they come up with will inflate dramatically by the end of the project.

IT is intended to make the day to day tasks of staff easier, but in the NHS (as in most lumbering bureaucratic dinosaurs) the systems are often difficult to use and end up with staff spending more time in front of a computer screen producing ‘statistics’ than spending time doing what they are supposed to do – caring for patients.

Perhaps one of the main problems is that the systems are produced by ‘IT people’ who have little knowledge of the day-to-day operating of a health facility. So they concentrate on the IT part as if that is all health staff have to do during their working day. The systems become too complex, too messy, and something that is more of a hindrance than a help.

Yet there are other countries that have operated very efficient IT systems for decades. IT systems that help in reducing bureaucracy and that are available across different health providers with minimal security or privacy issues. Perhaps the government needs to get off of its high horse and start looking at efficient systems around the world and tidy up the whole of the NHS IT infrastructure, getting rid of the inefficient ‘regional’ systems.

The government are also proposing a mass DNA database under the guise of providing more focused treatment to patients. This is something else we have heard before. A national DNA database was proposed in the early 2000s when the government wanted every member of the UK to be registered on it. This was dropped after almost universal condemnation and several legal challenges.

But the government are still determined that every person in the UK is on some sort of DNA database. Currently there is the police DNA database, which covers those who have criminal convictions, and now the proposed health database that will include another significant chunk of the population.

The problem with DNA databases is that the benefits of having national DNA databases as presented by the government are not the intended objectives. IF these databases were used purely for catching criminals, or purely for ensuring that effective treatment is provided to people, perhaps it would be more acceptable.

However (as with most government statements), it is the information they choose to omit that is the cause for concern.

For example, the government appointed ‘champion’ of the medical DNA database is Professor Sir John Bell who is the chair of the government’s ‘Human Genomics Strategy Group’. He also happens to be on the boards of mega-pharmaceutical company Roche and its subsidiary Genetech, and has been the founding member of three biotech companies, as well as having previously been closely involved with another mega-pharmicutical company Wellcome (who are also part of the medical DNA project).

Dr Helen Wallace, director of campaign group Genewatch told the BBC “Plans to build a DNA database of everybody in the NHS are a massive waste of public money and a gravy train for IT and gene sequencing companies and private healthcare. This Big Brother project will allow every individual and their relatives to be identified and tracked and makes the scrapped plans for ID cards look like small government.”

Dr Stuart Hogarth, of the department of social science, health and medicine at King’s College London, also expressed concerns about the government project, stating that the government’s track record of running major IT projects was not good. He went on to say “The reality is that much of the data won’t be useful. Before we start using genetic data in clinical practice we need to demonstrate that it’s going to improve clinical outcomes.”

It seems that the government are determined to get our DNA one way or another. We cannot be confident that our information will not be used for commercial purposes, either by being ‘leaked’ or sold to anyone willing to pay the right price.

We need to think of the longer term implications. Data can be used and abused. Your DNA could become a criteria for determining the quality of treatment you receive, or may be a factor in deciding if you are treated at all. Health insurance companies would rate people based on their DNA profile, meaning that as we get closer to having no free healthcare system, there could be many in society who are refused insurance.

Other agencies may be able to access the information, for example welfare agencies may use the information to determine if you receive welfare payments.

A national DNA database really serves no purpose for the general population, and will become another controlling mechanism for government.

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