Israel to launch Big Data health project amid privacy concerns

This area of digital health is estimated at six trillion dollars.

Health database (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Health database
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
The cabinet on Sunday approved a national digital-health program that is designed to personalize medicine and keep Israel at the forefront of the burgeoning medical-tech field, despite concerns over privacy.
The five-year program will have a budget of nearly NIS 1 billion ($280 million). The funds will go toward digitizing and sharing patient data among the country’s health funds, relying on artificial intelligence (AI) tools to more accurately detect abnormalities and find correct diagnoses.
“We are making a move of historical significance. We are developing the industries of tomorrow,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a statement on Sunday, adding that the digital-health field involves the intersection of big data, artificial intelligence and connectivity.
“It’s potentially bigger than cybersecurity, which is a huge area. It’s bigger than transportation, a huge area as well. This area of digital health is estimated at six trillion dollars,” Netanyahu said. “Let’s assume that we get 10% real market out of this potential – [which] in my opinion, is a conservative estimate – that’s a $600 billion market.”
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With the digital-health initiative, the prime minister wants Israel to become an industry leader, similar to its stature in cybersecurity. In 2017, Israel garnered some 16% of all cybersecurity investment globally – a vastly disproportionate sum compared to Israel’s small size – according to Start-Up Nation Central, an Israeli NGO that focuses on innovation.
Israel is becoming a major force in the field of digital healthcare, with hundreds of start-ups specializing in medical devices, pharmaceuticals and medical AI.
The proposal needed to be brought before the cabinet, a staffer in the Prime Minister’s Office told The Jerusalem Post, because the program grants access to health databases with sensitive, private information.
RONNY SAPIR, the Health Ministry’s official in charge of digital health since 2014, told the Post on Sunday that a team headed by former ministry director-general and associate director-general Dr. Boaz Lev spent years planning the project.
Sapir, who has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in business administration, is responsible for melding technology and business. The project will “improve competition among the health funds, each of which will want to provide better services,” she said.
The project will “boost the patient’s autonomy by giving him access to his medical data, while ensuring transparency on uses of the big data,” Sapir added. The project was proposed by government experts, health fund and public representatives, ethics experts and others.
The digital-health initiative unveils an anonymous Israeli database, named the Mosaic Project, which can show long-term disease and illness trends of its citizens for the past 20 years, offering a huge data set for researchers.
Some volunteers will anonymously input personal medical information in order to detect trends and better pinpoint diagnoses.
Other plans in the works include the full-scale digitization of medical records, in which Israel has been a leader internationally.
The digital-health project will also see the establishment of a center for encouraging innovation in healthcare – connecting Israeli start-ups to multinational corporations – and the promotion of international projects with other countries’ health systems.
“The cabinet decision reinforces what we, at aMoon, already knew: Israel will lead the world in medical technology and life sciences,” said Yair Schindel, a co-founder of aMoon Partners, a management fund that invests in innovative Israeli healthcare and life science ventures.
The fund plans to collaborate with the government-funded program and continue its investments in digital health and in other sub-sectors, such as bio-pharmaceuticals and medical devices.
“By investing in meticulously vetted, under-capitalized companies with brilliant ideas and capable management, we plan to be a tipping point in the Israeli and global economies,” Schindel told the Post.
The program will also help establish a national center for genetic sequencing in Israel, for the research and analysis of samples.
The program will see almost two-thirds of its funds, or $177m., go to setting-up databases and digital platforms for medical research, according to Calcalist. Around $64m. will support research and development in both academia and among tech start-ups.
The remaining expenditure will help with rewriting digital health regulations, along with doling out grants and scholarships.
NETANYAHU DISCUSSED a digital-health program in January, during a meeting at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, with healthcare executives and with the CEO of enterprise software company SAP. Then, Netanyahu and SAP CEO Bill McDermott spoke about collaborating on the project.
“We all know that Israel is ranked relatively high in terms of health in the world. But what not many people know is that relative to efficiency, we rank even higher,” said Director-General of the Prime Minister’s Office, Eli Groner. “We get more returns on every dollar we invest in health.”
Other nations with good national medical data include Estonia and the Scandinavian countries, said Sapir. The US has advanced in recent years, but it is still far behind Israel, she said, which has a centralization of health services and a culture of innovation.
“The public already feels some change, as when they arrive at a hospital emergency room, the doctor who treats them is able to access data on their medical history from the health funds and other hospitals without the system having a central database. What we are developing is a closed, protected medical-information system that will save lives.”
Following the cabinet decision, a meeting of 70 CEOs of health-related companies was set to be held in Tel Aviv on Monday to study the government’s decision and ways to implement it.
Unlike the US, where decentralization and private medical care make such a project much more difficult to implement, in Israel there are only four public health funds and three types of hospitals – government, those owned by health funds, and voluntary hospitals in Jerusalem, Netanya and Bnei Brak.
The program, according to the official announcement, includes technological development, international cooperation, concentration of academic and industrial efforts and regulatory changes to encourage research in the field.
The national plan is wide-ranging and will be financed by the Prime Minister’s Office, the Finance Ministry, the Health Ministry, the Economics Ministry, the Science and Technology Ministry and the Social Equality Ministry, with cooperation from the Innovation Authority and the Education Ministry’s Council for Higher Education.
The project will include a community of volunteers who, protected by three levels of privacy, will contribute clinical, genomic and other information about their health and will serve as an infrastructure for developing customized medical solutions and in-depth analysis of big data.
The effort will define mechanisms to access information anonymously, while maintaining privacy, by securing permission before supplying information and allowing entry. Participation in the projects will be carried out on a voluntary basis only after the participant has agreed, according to its developers.