Israel Approves Launching of Big Data Health Project

$265 million 5-year undertaking would give researchers, drug firms access to Israeli health data. Experts wary about privacy violations

Collecting data in the Rambam Hospital emergency room.
Tomer Neuberg

Israel’s cabinet approved on Sunday a 922 million shekel ($264.5 million) nationwide program over five years to make health data about its population available to researchers and private companies.

“This is a major asset and we want to make it accessible to researchers and developers in order to achieve two things: one is preventive medicine, and the second is personal medicine tailored to each individual,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the cabinet.

Digital health records are valuable. Big data analytics, which compare information provided by large numbers of patients, give drug makers indications of how medicines perform in the real world.

Evidence involves collecting data outside traditional randomized clinical trials, the current standard for judging medicines, and interest in the field is ballooning.

Israel is in a good position to provide the data because all of its nearly nine million citizens belong to one of four health maintenance organizations who keep members’ records digitally, thus comprising a huge medical database.

A stingy Israel

In an interview with TheMarker, Health Ministry director general Moshe Bar Siman Tov said Israel would not be collecting any fees or royalties for use of the data, above and beyond the cost of producing it, even as he acknowledged the information is quite valuable.

He said the payback for the economy would be that “we will develop here a thriving life science industry and the best healthcare system in the world.” He likened the big data that will be available to the same synergies that enabled the creation of Mobileye, the auto-tech company sold last year to Intel for more than $15 billion.

“In the case of the digital health program, if multinational companies come to Israel and set up research and development centers and research develop drugs here, tests and the ability to predict diseases – the first to benefits will be the sick and the second will be Israel as a country. It’s a non-stop growth engine,” Bar Siman Tov said.

Much of the 922 million shekels earmarked for the program will be used to upgrade computerization of the health system and unify medical records used by different medical agencies. Regulations will be amended to enable data-sharing.

Ministries have been working on the program for months with the enthusiastic backing of the prime minister.

A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said that mechanisms would be put in place to keep information anonymous while protecting privacy, information security and restricting access as part of the government project.

Among other things, patients will have the right to block the use of their information for research, the statement said. But some experts expressed concerns.

Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, an expert on technology and the law at the Israel Democracy Institute, said the plan violated Israel’s basic Law on human dignity and the right to privacy.

“The fact that someone is passing on identifying data about me is dangerous, even if I agreed to it,” she said. “We’re preoccupied with the benefits that will emerge from the plan, but on the other side there is a constitutional right that is being violated, so this is a measure that should be approved through legislation.”

Nadav Davidovitch, head of the Public Health School at Ben Gurion University, told Reuters he was concerned that private companies would profit by using a publicly funded database while continuing to make some medication unaffordable to many patients.

Bar Siman Tov in response: “We can’t close our eyes to the reality and shouldn’t repsonsd with fear. The sue of data is happenings and will continue to happen. We need to ensure that’s it one openly and with proper goals and with clear rules.”

Netanyahu said world leaders and international firms have already shown interest in the project and that the potential revenue for Israel could be in the billions of dollars.

The world’s major drug companies now have departments focused on the use of data across multiple diseases. Several have completed studies using the information to delve into key areas addressed by their drugs.