Britain's publicly-funded National Health Service should share all patient data anonymously with private health care companies to boost innovation in a key U.K. industry, Prime Minister David Cameron said Monday.
Cameron's proposal was part of an ambitious plan to make the public health service work more closely with the pharmaceutical industry, which he said can speed up patient access to new drugs and drive growth in the life sciences sector. But some lawmakers and campaigners oppose the plan, warning that patient privacy may be compromised.
"The aims are laudable ... but the methods of doing this are not at all acceptable," said Joyce Robbins of the charity Patient Concern. "This data is absolutely private _ it is not the government's to give."
Cameron said that he wants to change the National Health Service constitution so that data on all patients would by default be made available for research anonymously unless individuals choose not to have their information released.
"The end result will be that every willing patient is a research patient and every time you use the NHS you are playing a part in the fight against disease at home and around the world," he said in a speech.
He also said the government would invest 180 million pounds ($282 million) to shorten the period between the development of new drugs and their use, which can take many years. In addition, he proposed allowing the NHS to make early use of experimental drugs which have not passed all regulatory clearances to treat patients in the advanced stages of diseases like cancer.
Closer collaboration with life science companies could mean giving them more freedom to run clinical trials inside hospitals, as well as access to anonymous patient records.
Private companies can currently access a limited amount of anonymous NHS patient information from a database, consented to by patients at the beginning of treatment. Such data-sharing is restricted to certain projects and subject to strict safeguards, a Department of Health spokesman said.
Academics and major pharmaceutical companies such as GlaxoSmithKline PLC welcomed the prime minister's speech, saying the plans will boost pharmaceutical investment in the U.K.
"The actions on research and manufacturing will further strengthen the attractiveness of the U.K.," the company said in a statement, adding that the proposals "should ensure that the NHS is a stronger adopter of innovative medicines and technology."
But many medical charities and groups said that while research using anonymous patient data is crucial in treating diseases, such data could still include age profiles and post codes to trace back to the identity of patients concerned.
If strict safeguards were not put in place, it "could mean that details of an individual's health status and treatment will be revealed if researchers are able to search through records and identify patients in order to contact them," the British Medical Association said in a statement.
Campaigners may have reason to be worried. NHS hospitals and trusts have lost thousands of patient medical records on several occasions in the past, with the data breaches including staff losing laptops and faxing details of patients' records to the wrong number.