The Israeli government on Sunday approved a National Digital Health plan, which, despite mounting privacy concerns, plans to create a digital database of the medical files of some 9 million residents and make them available to researchers and enterprises.
The government has vowed to protect the privacy of individuals and is touting the NIS 1 billion ($287 million) program as a huge boon to the medical research industry. But critics pointed to risks of a massive breach in patient confidentiality and urged the government to slow down.
To promote the initiative, Israel will unify the existing database of the digital medical records it has collected over a period of 20 years — which holds the medical files of more than 98 percent of the population — to create a single database, in which one’s participation is optional, that will help attract researchers and industry leaders from across the globe, the Prime Minister’s office said Sunday.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu estimated the global digital health sector at some $6 trillion, calling the field “huge.” He speculated that Israel might be able to snag some 10% of this market potential, worth some $600 billion.
“I think this is a conservative estimate,” he said. “And if we succeed, just like we succeeded in cybersecurity and in autonomous cars,” then Israel can expect a significant boost of new products.
Israel has medical records of close to 9 million people collected over the past 20 years, Netanyahu said. “This is a huge asset,” he said. “We want to make this available to researchers and developers and enterprises.” The aim is to boost the development of preventive medications as well as personalized, custom-made treatments.
“Of course this depends on the consent of each and every person,” he said, adding that this new policy was a “global breakthrough,” and global companies have already expressed a huge interest in the initiative. “I’ve already met many of them. They all want to come here. Quite rightly, they see that this is a new direction.”
Details of the plan were released as the world grapples with concerns over the privacy infringement amid reports that UK’s Cambridge Analytica was able to tap into the profiles of more than 50 million Facebook users without their permission. Legislators in the US and Europe have criticized Facebook and said they want more information about what happened, with speculation that social media and other tech giants will face tighter regulation as a result.
With all the benefits the sharing of a joint database will yield for medical research and insights, the issue is “complicated,” warned Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a senior fellow and head of the Democracy in the Information Age project at the Israel Democracy Institute.
“The Israeli government is running a little bit too fast. The case of Cambridge Analytica has shown us how sometimes you can use big data for different goals than originally planned, and sometimes that can be harmful. We need to look very carefully at this whole issue of opening up Israeli medical big data.”
The initiative will encompass a number of projects, including the establishment of the “Mosaic” health project, which will create a national information infrastructure project for health research in the field of genetics and medical information. The project will have a community of volunteers who 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 statement said.
The initiative is backed by the Prime Minister’s Office, the Finance Ministry, the Health Ministry, the Social Equality Ministry, the Economy Ministry and the Science and Technology Ministry. The Innovation Authority and the Council for Higher Education have also partnered with it.
In addition, regulators will work together to make sure information can be accessed anonymously, maintaining privacy and securing information and access permissions. Participation in all of the projects will be exclusively on a voluntary basis.
Israel will seek to encourage the export of digital health solutions and encourage foreign enterprises to invest in Israel in these fields, the statement said. The nation will also set up “technological innovation laboratories” to strengthen cooperation between multinational companies and Israeli digital health startups, promoting joint ventures and developing relevant academic courses to boost the sector.
The idea is to make “digital health the third major growth driver for the Israeli economy” alongside cybersecurity and autonomous vehicles, said Eli Groner, the director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, by phone. The global healthcare industry “dwarfs”the other two globally, he added.
He said that Israel, which has “the second largest digital database in the world,” has a “huge” global competitive advantage because it started digitalizing its patients years ago, the health system is small and efficient, and Israel has a strong research and development infrastructure in place.
Netanyahu first announced the plan at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos earlier this year.
Israeli venture capital funding in digital health startups jumped by 30 percent last year, to almost $340 million, compared with 2016, according to data from Start-up Nation Central. Israeli innovation is behind almost half of the healthcare revenues of the 350-year-old German pharmaceutical and chemicals firm Merck, Kai Beckmann, CEO of Performance Materials at the firm, said in an interview in February.
There are 1,500-1,700 healthcare and life-sciences firms operating in Israel, said Yair Schindel, who together with Marius Nacht, the co-founder of Check Point Software Technologies Ltd., set up the 8400 Health Network, a nonprofit organization to make Israel a leader on the global healthcare map.