Safety or privacy – do we need to choose?

By Atif Al Braiki, Chief Executive Officer, Malaffi
12 September 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound effect on the lives of billions of people around the world and its impact will be felt within all facets of our society for many years to come. As governments have struggled to wrestle back control and limit the spread of the disease, it has become clear that some approaches have been more successful than others. As a result, wider debates on whether we should choose between safety and data privacy have come to the fore.

The use of Big Data has the ability to transform the delivery of healthcare. With longitudinal patient data, the sector is perfectly poised to reap many advantages of data science. Despite these clear advantages though, the public has historically been wary about how and why their data will be stored and used. For most, it hasn’t been exactly clear how risks may be outweighed by benefits.

The pandemic has demonstrated how data sharing has been critical in slowing the spread of the virus around the world. In countries with sophisticated data sharing platforms in place, rapid and successful pandemic responses were implemented.

Success stories from many countries demonstrate that when we collect, analyze, standardize and share such data responsibly, we can protect our health without sacrificing our privacy. The pandemic has in effect become a proving ground for the use of Big Data in finding solutions to the challenges we face today and into the future. It has shown that countries that had already employed and invested in the most unified and standardized systems were best equipped to react quickly and effectively to mitigate COVID-19. The significance of access to reliable, up-to-date information to help countries like Singapore deal with a disease outbreak cannot be overstated enough. With a standardized, high quality health record database, digital technology and connectivity were in place to help the country detect, respond to and recover from COVID-19 in record time.

Changing attitudes to data and privacy

In the past, the health industry and governments globally have faced a wide spectrum of varying attitudes to data privacy. But the pandemic has demonstrated beyond doubt, that when handled properly, the benefits are limitless, and the public’s confidence is boosted. In the UAE, thanks to our forward-thinking leadership, the government executed an exemplary COVID-19 response. Not only were residents kept safe and our economy kept on track, but public trust in the government also soared. Already highly respected among its population, the UAE government has now become one of the most trusted in the world. It’s a trend witnessed in many countries who have successfully executed rapid pandemic responses.

We still have much more to learn about the virus, but one thing is certain. Data has been and continues to be the vital weapon in the battle to safeguard the population. Accurate, live information has been essential for this to succeed and by employing data, health professionals and governments are demonstrating the benefits.

We have built strong foundations during this emergency situation, enabling us to establish longer-term strategies that will help us to deal with future pandemics.

The Abu Dhabi experience

We have already begun the data sharing journey in Abu Dhabi. Traditionally, medical data was predominantly shared only for claims and reimbursement purposes, with limited reuse for patient care coordination. To increase the scope of data sharing across healthcare, the Department of Health – Abu Dhabi in 2018 initiated its Health Information Exchange (HIE) platform, Malaffi. The first of its kind in the region, Malaffi was in the middle of rolling out when the pandemic hit. Suddenly, there was an urgent need to centralize COVID-19 test results from all testing sites across Abu Dhabi, and Malaffi was in the best position to make that possible in a short period of time. Front-line medical staff were able to retrieve real-time information on test results and medical history information, allowing them to make faster, safer decisions to protect staff and patient.  Furthermore, Malaffi allowed the health authorities to have access to real-time data on new cases to facilitate better decision-making. The platform has also been a crucial part of the Department of Health’s vaccination program. By centralizing all vaccine data in the Emirate, we are contributing to the nation’s success and proud position of leading the world in terms of vaccination rates.

The privacy and security of patient health information in the platform is a top priority. Malaffi works closely with the Department of Health – Abu Dhabi, which in response to a shift in the digitalization within the Abu Dhabi healthcare sector, set out rigorous standards to protect the privacy of patients. All participating healthcare facilities and users fully comply with federal and local health privacy laws and security standards, to ensure data confidentiality and integrity, and patient privacy at all times.

Communication as the way forward

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how controlled data sharing within a secure network can play a crucial role in the way healthcare is delivered and patients in Abu Dhabi have seen first-hand how the smart use of Big Data, through Malaffi, plays a central role in protecting the health and safety of the community. However, there is much more that can and should be done for current and future healthcare challenges to benefit from the valuable potential that Big Data holds.

By collating and sharing data responsibly with well thought out security measures we can significantly improve patient outcomes while respecting their privacy. The choice between safety and privacy is no longer mutually exclusive. We can have both and there is no time to lose.

So, let us embrace the power of Big Data to change lives for the better.

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