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The Health Secretary’s obsession with apps is distracting from the basics

Image: the new Health Secretary's app, which asks users to make private data available to the app.

The NHA is concerned to hear that the new Health Secretary Matt Hancock is pushing for more mobile apps to be used within the NHS. This comes only days after news of safety concerns regarding the Babylon Healthcare mobile app, which had failed during user tests to correctly identify the symptoms of a heart attack, ectopic pregnancy, and meningitis.

Hancock appears to have previous experience in mobile app use, having commissioned the, erm, Matt Hancock app that sends users photos and videos of the MP. The app asked users to give it access to their own private photo library. This, according to app developers Disciple, was an 'intentional feature' and not a bug.

The NHA strongly recommends that any apps to be used in the NHS should be fully tested to the standard of other medical devices, should be fully secure to protect patient confidentiality, and should be proven to be value for money through formal assessment by NICE (the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence). We are concerned that these steps could be bypassed, leading to the potential for patient harm.

And we don't just mean direct harm. Frontline NHS staff will know that poor funding has led to chronic under-investment in the basics, including proper security updates to ageing computers still running Windows XP. This led to the NHS being vulnerable to the 'cyber-attack' in May last year, which caused significant operational difficulties and put lives at risk. There is every chance that a misdirection of funding into unproven mobile apps will divert much-needed cash away from critical NHS infrastructure.

Finally, we must remember the inverse care law - those who need healthcare the most will have the least access to it, thanks to socioeconomic factors and the social determinants of health. A flash new mobile app may be popular with the middle class, but what will it do to help those most in need?

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