Palantir, a US IT giant co-founded by billionaire entrepreneur Peter Thiel, finds itself at the center of a contentious debate regarding its involvement with the UK’s National Health Service (NHS). While Thiel’s public comments about the NHS have raised eyebrows, Palantir is poised to secure a substantial contract worth half a billion pounds for processing health records. This prospect has triggered concerns among privacy and healthcare advocates, given the potential implications of a private American corporation playing a prominent role in the NHS.
The NHS, which has an annual budget of £182 billion, houses one of the world’s largest repositories of health data. It handles approximately one million GP appointments daily and over a quarter of a million hospital appointments. The information within these records could be valued at £9.6 billion annually, offering significant opportunities for advancements in healthcare, patient care, and cost savings, particularly with the utilization of AI. However, if mishandled, this wealth of data could jeopardize patient privacy, damage trust in the NHS, and fundamentally alter the nature of the healthcare system.
Palantir, in partnership with Accenture, is a contender alongside Quantexa and Oracle Cerner to develop the “Federated Data Platform” (FDP), a system designed to consolidate operational data from different NHS systems into a single, secure environment. Although NHS England currently has no plans to include GP records in the FDP, concerns exist regarding potential mission creep that might extend Palantir’s access to this sensitive data. Despite a delayed announcement, many anticipate Palantir to secure the FDP contract.
The origins of Palantir can be traced back to its foundation in 2003 by Peter Thiel, who sought to adapt anti-fraud software similar to PayPal’s to enhance counterterrorism efforts while preserving civil liberties. Notably, one of Palantir’s early investors was the CIA through its venture capital branch, In-Q-Tel. Palantir Gotham, one of the company’s primary software iterations, is employed by various US intelligence agencies, the military, law enforcement, immigration services, and fraud investigators. This software excels at aggregating extensive datasets and uncovering connections that might elude human analysts. Furthermore, Palantir’s software, including Metropolis, has found applications in finance, being adopted by hedge funds and banks.
During the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Palantir, along with other tech giants, was invited by the UK government to assist with the pandemic response. Palantir offered the use of its Foundry system for just £1, which was accepted by health officials. This engagement allowed Palantir to collaborate with the NHS and offer support for the distribution of medicines, ventilators, and vaccines, as well as monitoring staff and intensive care bed availability. As the pandemic progressed, Palantir’s involvement proved successful and underscored the value of their contribution.
Building on this foundation, Palantir subsequently secured multiple NHS contracts worth £60 million without competitive tendering. The most recent deal, worth £5.5 million, was for running Homes for Ukraine. However, this agreement faced scrutiny from the National Audit Office, raising questions about offering services for nominal fees to establish a foothold in the public sector. Palantir defended this practice, citing the government’s guidance on running pilot programs for new services.
In contrast to Thiel’s critical comments about the NHS, Palantir emphasized its role in supporting the NHS and reducing care backlogs, ensuring patients receive timely treatment in 36 NHS Trusts across England. These trusts had engaged with Palantir to trial Foundry, further embedding the company within the NHS’s operations.
Nonetheless, concerns exist regarding the transparency of Palantir’s relationship with the NHS, as some trials of its software have faced delays and suspensions. An inquiry into whether patients will have the ability to opt out of sharing their data with Palantir under the FDP contract has caused confusion. The government is reportedly considering reforming the National Data Opt-Out, raising questions about the future control patients may have over their data.
Ultimately, the success of the chosen provider for the FDP contract will be judged not only by its ability to enhance the NHS’s digital capabilities but also by its capacity to preserve patient trust. If individuals become hesitant to share critical information with their GPs due to concerns about data security and privacy, it could jeopardize the doctor-patient relationship as we know it, presenting a complex challenge for the healthcare system’s future.