Private health firms could be given access to anonymous NHS patient records and other NHS data, under plans to be unveiled by David Cameron.
Making such data available would help the British life sciences sector become a world leader and boost the economy, the government believes.
It hopes in return that the government would save money and the NHS would get faster access to new treatments.
Patient Concern said the plan signalled the “death of patient confidentiality”.
The prime minister, due to make a keynote speech on the plans in London on Monday, is expected to give life science companies more freedom to run clinical trials inside hospitals.
The government says that the cradle-to-grave principle of the NHS means it has some of the most detailed and comprehensive patient data in the world.
Ministers believe Britain can become a world leader in the field of life sciences because of the vast expertise within the NHS and its strong university-based research.
We will not allow David Cameron to throw away essential safeguards”
Andy BurnhamShadow health secretary
The industry already employs 160,000 people in 4,500 companies, with a turnover of £50bn a year.
Under the plans, NHS records would be made anonymous, but it is not clear whether private firms would have to pay to access them.
A government spokesman said: “The life sciences industry is of vital importance to the UK economy and we are committed to greater collaboration with the NHS to ensure that patients can get faster access to valuable innovative treatments.
“All necessary safeguards would be in place to ensure protection of patients’ details – the data will be anonymised and the process will be carefully and robustly regulated.
“Healthcare charities, researchers and clinicians are calling for this action in order to improve research, innovation and the development of medicines in the UK.”
Mr Cameron will outline plans for an “early access” scheme allowing seriously ill patients, such as those with cancer, to get new drugs up to a year before they are fully licensed.
Some medicines can take up to 20 years to be approved.
But the proposals have been criticised by privacy campaigners who oppose wider access to medical records.
Roger Goss, from Patient Concern, told the BBC: “This is the death of patient confidentiality.
“There is no guarantee that information will be anonymised, in any case anonymised data can just as easily be re-identified.
“We understand GP surgeries will have the right to refuse to release their patients’ records, but whether patients will ever be told what is happening, let alone have the choice to protect their privacy, is still unclear.”
He said the aims of the scheme were “laudable” and his organisation had resigned from a Department of Health consultation committee formed to present the issue.
Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham said: “We will not allow David Cameron to throw away essential safeguards in his desperation to develop a credible industrial strategy.”
Meanwhile, other government-held data – such as the Met Office’s weather records – could also be opened up under the plans.