Lawrence Christensen, Marketing Director, Tunstall Healthcare talks us through consumer data protection and data privacy in the healthcare market.

Personal data protection and privacy have rarely been under so much scrutiny. As the Cambridge Analytica scandal continues to unfold, there is understandable public outrage at the use of consumer data to manipulate situations and a developing argument that dictates why personal data collection is a nefarious act.

But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Arguably a great deal of the collection, analysis and application of personal data is being used in a dubious manner. Companies encouraging us to read certain content, or spend money on particular things, even vote for certain politicians – all these processes are under scrutiny and rightly so. But there is at least one context in which analysing personal data can genuinely serve a public good, even save lives, and that’s in healthcare.

In many ways this isn’t surprising. After all, personal data is at the heart of how medical practitioners assess our condition, how well we are recovering from illness or injury, and how they decide which interventions and treatments to administer. What are ‘vital stats’ if not a form of personal data?

Thanks to the advent of the Internet of Things (IoT) and access to more powerful analytics engines than ever before, it is now possible for healthcare practitioners to collect data that was either impossible or prohibitively complex or costly to capture. Such interventions can prevent small health issues from escalating into more serious ones (which are also more costly to treat), and encourage individuals to make small changes to improve their overall health (which, again, saves money). In other words, personal data in a healthcare context can unlock both improved outcomes for patients and better bottom lines for healthcare organisations.

The number of individuals with chronic long-term conditions worldwide is increasing, making up about 30% of the population but requiring around 70% of overall healthcare resources. It is therefore imperative that governments and healthcare providers find more efficient means of both monitoring and treating these patients.

One way of driving efficiencies is to find quicker and most cost-effective ways of monitoring key data from those patients, such as blood pressure, blood sugar levels, heart rate, and so on. If this data can be captured and transmitted to centralised monitoring platforms, then alerts can be set so that healthcare practitioners are automatically notified to changes in patients’ condition. They can then intervene at the optimum time – sometimes even remotely, thanks to tools like digital insulin pumps – preventing patient deterioration and unnecessary hospital visits.

The benefits of data mining become even more apparent when we consider the banks of information that healthcare organisations are then able to amass, based on information captured from hundreds or thousands of individual patients. This kind of large-scale data analysis is key to developing more effective treatments and approaches to healthcare, and for practitioners to learn more about how different conditions develop.

Let’s not forget that data is also particularly powerful for individuals to control their own health more effectively. With the latest health and wellbeing apps on the market, users can monitor activity levels, heart rate and sleep to help them self-manage their own conditions and rely less on NHS services.

Of course concerns around data protection and privacy do still stand. Individuals’ medical information is highly personal and sensitive. It is vital for organisations operating in this space to take every step possible to protect that information both from malicious targeting by cyber criminals and accidental loss due to human error or oversight. It is vital, too, for those organisations to remain transparent as to how personal data is being used, and to keep ethical principles front and centre when analysing and making decisions based on that information. Nevertheless, it is indisputable that personal data holds enormous potential as a vehicle for change and improvement in the healthcare sector; it could even be a lifesaver.