The Data Will See You Now

Published in Forbes Middle East, 20 October 2016

How to securely handle sensitive personal health information is becoming a critical issue for the region’s health services as they go digital.

Over the summer months in 2016, Emirates Integrated Telecommunications Company (Du) will be taking a step into a whole new area, with a project to provide secure access to patients’ electronic healthcare records (EHRs) in local hospitals and clinics. It may seem a strange move for a telecoms firm, but such initiatives are going to become increasingly common in the future.

The amount of data being collected in every area of our lives is proliferating, and finding a way to handle it safely and smartly is as critical an issue for the healthcare sector as for any industry. Patients need to know their health records are both accurate and secure. The Du project, which will test a system for sharing EHRs using block chain technology, might go some way to ensuring that is the case.

“Electronic health records are fantastic to have, but they generate a problem in terms of security because the information in the system can be accessed by people in hospitals or externally. They can be malicious, they can be mistaken” says Jose Valles, vice-president of enterprise commerce, new business and innovation at Du. “It is important to provide another layer of security. Block chain provides that. We are able to track changes in the EHR. We are going to be able to have alerts in case something is changed. You are going to know who is doing what when.”

If you’ve heard of block chain before, it is almost certainly in relation to the virtual currency Bitcoin, which uses it as the basis for its entire system. Block chains are essentially public databases, which allow users to share and verify information without the presence of a central authority. While virtual currencies have already harnessed its potential, advocates of the technology say it has far wider potential and can help in any situation where critical information is exchanged, from contract exchanges to voting.

The Dubai authorities have latched onto the idea with enthusiasm, setting up the Global Block chain Council in February which will launch a series of projects to test the technology. The Du project is merely one of the first. The project isn’t a complete leap into the unknown though. Du is working with Amsterdam-headquartered Guard time, which has already rolled out the technology in the Estonian health service.

“Today in Estonia every single healthcare record is backed by block chain,” says Mike Gault, chief executive officer of Guard time. “If there is any access or any change to a healthcare record, that digital activity is registered in the block chain. That does several things. It allows citizens to verify what happened to their healthcare record and it prevents hackers manipulating those records. It becomes impossible for insiders in the hospital or outsiders to get in there and cover up their tracks. You have this transparency, this accountability that has never been possible before.”

Even so, the health authorities in the U.A.E. are not rushing in and the Du project is very much a proof of concept rather than a full roll-out. The precise details of it haven’t been revealed, but only a small number of clinics and hospitals will be involved at first.

“The authorities are exactly the same here as they are in the U.K. or Spain or anywhere,” says Valles. “They are interested but they are cautious, because at the end of the day they are handling something that is very important. But there is a willingness to adopt technologies in the U.A.E. that I don’t see in other places. So hopefully after the results of the pilot they’re going to embrace it. Right now, they’re observing, which is wise.”

The whole project is an interesting case of how technology is becoming an integral part of healthcare systems. In part, the expansion of technology is being led by patients, using smart watches, mobile phones or other wearable devices like Fitbit to monitor their health. Data from these devices isn’t typically shared with doctors yet, but it could be in the future. But the healthcare system is itself also generating ever large quantities of data.

“Astoundingly large amounts of data are generated in healthcare in structured, semi-structured and unstructured formats,” says Lina Shadid, healthcare leader for IBM Middle East and Africa. “The ability to use insights from this big data will be the key to improving patient care and the sustainability of health systems in the coming years. We believe that getting the right insights from that healthcare data into the hands of health practitioners will dramatically improve outcomes for patients. Big data can also help manage population health, identifying at-risk population segments for early proactive intervention and care.”

At the moment, the region and the industry are in the early stages of figuring out how best to achieve these aims, and it is not just in the Gulf where initiatives are being tested. US technology firm Cisco has been working with the Jordanian government on a ‘telehealth’ project, which links specialists at the Prince Hamzah Hospital in Amman with patients in two rural locations, at Al-Mafraq and Queen Rania Governmental hospitals.

“Licensed healthcare professionals staff the remote location and assist with patient examinations while critical data on patient information can be instantly accessed by the specialists through the network-connected medical devices,” explains Mike Weston, vice-president of Cisco Middle East. “Given the choice between an appointment in Amman or a scheduled specialist consultation at the telehealth clinic, patients are increasingly choosing the local option. To date, over 110,000 patients have benefited.”

But making the most of the possibilities requires heavy investment. Research firm IDC estimates that, globally, the quickest rise in IT spending in the next few years will be in the healthcare sector. In a report issued in February it said healthcare IT spending would grow by 5.5% a year between 2015 and 2019.

The growth rate will be even faster in the Middle East, at 7.1%. Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. will see the fastest growth of over 8.5% annually. This year alone, total IT spending by the healthcare sector in the Middle East will reach $1.24bn, of which half is being spent in the GCC. They have a lot of catching up to do though. According to Nino Giguashvili, lead healthcare analyst for the Middle East at IDC, less than 20% of hospitals in the Middle East currently use some type of ‘big data’ technology.

Perhaps more than anything else all this data also needs to be secure. If not, patients will start to lose confidence in the entire system. Given that risk, the use of blockchain and other technologies is likely to be a critical feature of the healthcare systems in the years ahead.

“The balance between access to and portability of health information and the need for confidentiality are obvious. As with credit card and bank account data, the risk of losing the privacy of your health data is critical,” says Shadid. “The risks include security, data breach and data hacking. These risks are amplified with the increase of mobile devices and apps which collect personal health information.”

The use of data to manage healthcare issues has a long history and it has at times been controversial. In 1902, insurance companies in the U.S. got together to form the Medical Information Bureau to share data on their customers’ health conditions. It has garnered plenty of criticism over the years, often because of the secrecy surrounding it, but the companies involved insist that it means health insurance is cheaper for U.S. consumers.

But technology and big data don’t work miracles every time. A much-hyped project by Google to try and predict where flu and dengue fever outbreaks were likely to happen next, based on people searching for related terms on their computers, was set up in 2008. But it was dropped in 2015 when it proved to be of no use. More information is not in itself a useful thing unless it can be analysed properly, much like a doctor looking at an EHR.