State faces enormous data challenges in health, says Varadkar

In first public duty, Taoiseach says service requires huge investment in technology


Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has carried out his first public duty, opening the government’s Data Summit at the Convention Centre in Dublin.

Mr Varadkar told about 1,000 attendees at the two-day event organised by his department there was a need to broaden the conversation about the role of data in our society.

“Data in itself is neither good nor bad, but how we use it is very significant. Data can enrich our lives and also benefit society. It can be used to fight disease, deliver personalised and effective healthcare and also to prevent crime, deliver much more efficient transport and emergency services and help us to build smart cities. And it can of course also be misused. We are all familiar with the stories of cyberattacks, identity theft, data leaks and data abuse,” he said.

But he said his own experience of ministries in transport, health and social protection had shown him the real value of data in informing policy and delivering better services.

Mr Varadkar said there were “enormous data challenges” in health in the State.

He said information and computing technology was “just not very well developed” in health. The Government had been trying to push forward a unique health identifier for all citizens but that project was “progressing very slowly”.

“I don’t really think we will overcome the kind of problems we have in our health service in Ireland without a very significant investment in ICT, being able to retain and collect data properly so we can actually understand our patients,” he said.

“We often talk about the money following the patient, but when you don’t have the right information systems in place you can’t follow either the money or the patient and that becomes a huge difficulty when we try to plan our health services.”

Mr Varadkar also spoke of the challenges and opportunities created by the new EU legal framework on data protection, the General Data Protection Regulation.

The event partners include all the main data multinationals based in the State.

Minister of State for Data Protection and European Affairs Dara Murphy said the potential for data and technology to improve the daily lives of our people and citizens and to tackle challenges such as climate change and ageing populations were at the heart of the event.


Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon told the summit that “context” was the keyword to understanding the implications of data protection.

She said we had to understand that with a largely principles-based law the answers were not automatically black and white.

She said we were living through change that was well beyond the velocity of the previous global industrial revolutions.

A myriad of new challenges had arisen, such as cyberbullying, revenge porn, children suing their parents for posting their baby pictures online, fake news and online radicalisation.

But equally we had seen the benefits of online technology and how fewer people across the globe now lived in extreme poverty thanks to the links brought by technology and globalisation.

We also had a better understanding of climate change and how to deal with hospital infections and we could now pick up genetic markers linked to cancer.

Ms Dixon said one of the things the democratisation of publishing, in particular through social media, had led to was “something of a diminution of the status of real expertise and consequently to a loss of nuance in debate”.