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Matt Hancock, the new health secretary, is planning a system of “predictive prevention” in which algorithms will use detailed data on individuals to send targeted healthy living ads to those flagged as having “propensities to health problems”, such as smoking or becoming obese. Hancock has proposed that people’s medical records should be combined with social and smartphone data to predict who will pick up bad habits and ‘stop them getting ill’.

Despite promises to safeguard data, the plans have drawn concerns amongst doctors and patients over the right to privacy, and campaigners have argued that the project risks backfiring by scaring people or damaging public trust in NHS handling of sensitive information.

Hancock, who has stated that the use of technology to improve NHS outcomes is one of his main priorities as health secretary, has argued that doctors are too busy to get to know their patients individually and that computer programmes can “step in” to help them anticipate who is at risk of illness because of lifestyle problems.

“So far through history, public health has essentially dealt with populations as a whole”, he said. “The anti-smoking campaign on TV is targeted at everybody. But using data, both medical data – appropriately safeguarded, of course, for privacy reasons – and using other demographic data, you can work out that somebody might have a higher propensity to smoke and then you can target interventions much more closely.”

“We are now exploring digital services that will use information people choose to share, based on consent with only the highest standards on data privacy, to offer them precise and targeted health advice”

“Technology now allows us to offer people predictive prevention; tailored, intelligent advice on how to live longer, healthier lives. This used to happen within the brains of the GPs in the partnership when they really knew the community and had personal relationships with everyone in the community. As GPs’ practices have come under more pressure. That’s become harder and we can use data really effectively to target people who have propensities to health problems”

However, Sam Smith, of the privacy group Medconfidential, has warned: “predictive intervention has to be done carefully in the right context and with great empathy and care, as it’s easy to just look creepy”.

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