New public health body will have key leadership role in data science and innovation

A new public health body to be set up in Scotland will have a key leadership role for data science and innovation, according to a consultation paper.

Public Health Scotland will take a lead on smart and wearable devices, at home diagnostics, and ‘digital therapeutics’ under proposals put forward by Scottish Government and local government umbrella organisation COSLA.

With the advent of affordable cloud computing, the new body – expected to come into being by April next year – will seek to harness people’s health and wellbeing data via their devices in order to improve patient outcomes.

The Scottish Government consultation paper, which closed last week, sets out the organisation’s remit and purpose; it is being established by amalgamating the functions of three previously separate divisions of the NHS in Scotland.

Around 1,100 staff are expected to work for the new organisation, which will incorporate existing bodies NHS Health Scotland, Health Protection Scotland and the Information Services Division (ISD).

An extract from the paper reveals: “Data and information have always underpinned our understanding of the public’s health and wellbeing, but we are now within a digital age of unprecedented opportunity to drive further improvements through data science – the approach to understanding and predicting patterns in ever increasingly complex and large volumes and varieties of unstructured data. There is more data available than ever before: on people’s health and wellbeing, on their circumstances, on their genetic make-up, on their habits, on their environment. 

“Affordable cloud computing power is rapidly increasing to enable analysis of such data, and technology is more readily available to people and will become ever more available in the future – including smart and wearable devices, at home diagnostics, and digital therapeutics.”

Technology advances will also help the organisation take a more preventative and interventionist approach in public health, the report indicates, adding: “We want to use such research to identify the social, economic, environmental and behavioral determinants of health and wellbeing, developing and evaluating interventions and policies for the protection and improvement of it.”

The report adds: “By illuminating basic social determinants of health
and wellbeing and identifying and testing innovative social policy and service interventions, we can help develop practitioners who are skilled in designing, implementing, and evaluating health-enhancing interventions.”

Both the Scottish Daily Mail and The Times Scotland reported that the developments could lead to people’s data being ‘harvested’ from their fitness apps and trackers, including metrics such as DNA profiles, blood pressure, weight, and exercise data. In addition wireless sensors set up to monitor the movements of the elderly and frail in their homes could also help inform care plans.

Alex Cole-Hamilton, a Liberal Democrat MSP and member of the Health & Sport Committee, told the Scottish Daily Mail that it would be “essential” that any private medical data is held securely and that there was full “transparency” over what it was being used for.

A Scottish Government spokesman added: “Public Health Scotland will consider all opportunities to achieve improvements in health and wellbeing outcomes, including through digital technology and data. Any proposals that the organisation considered in the future, once established, will be required to comply with strict consent and data protection obligations.

“We are currently considering the responses to our consultation on Public Health Scotland and this will help us reflect on the ambitions for the new body.”