A Balancing Act: Protecting data privacy and fueling the healthcare digital revolution

NetApp’s cloud solutions manager, Martin Warren, discusses the transformation that healthcare is experiencing from technology and the challenges presented by the explosion of data

Technology is transforming healthcare with the application of virtual reality (VR), artificial intelligence (AI) and big data.

From the provision of services, to the collation of the data upon which medical research is founded, healthcare will be unrecognisable in the not-too-distant future.

But how will the cornerstone of patient/doctor relationships – trust – be maintained in the digital age? Particularly when the storage of confidential medical records is under increasing scrutiny?

The exciting evolution of the health sector at the hands of the technological revolution puts onlookers at the heart of the action and patients at the centre of decision-making processes.

The exciting evolution of the health sector at the hands of the technological revolution puts onlookers at the heart of the action and patients at the centre of decision-making processes

But, behind the slick, alluring shine of all things hi-tech, in the background, the inner workings of clinical governance must keep up. too.

At the grassroots of the healthcare profession, VR training is enhancing the skills and experiences of medical students globally. In April this year, the world’s-first virtual reality operation was live streamed around the world from the operating theatre at the Royal London hospital.

Cancer surgeon, Dr Shafi Ahmed, snipped and sliced his way around a tumour before the eyes of more than 54,500 medical students, trainee surgeons, and curious members of the public.

Dr Ahmed’s innovative group, Medical Realities, offers medical training products – specialising in VR, augmented reality (AR) and gamification – by using consumer-level devices to reduce the cost of training.

With no time for data transmission delays, and no room for data privacy breaches, Cloud management services will be crucial

Apart from democratising healthcare training, this technology simultaneously closes a gap in the doctor/patient relationship through engagement, while boosting students’ knowledge-base and training experience, enhancing patient trust.

However, if VR is set to become common-place in future operating rooms, robust data management will become a life or death matter.

“With no time for data transmission delays, and no room for data privacy breaches, Cloud management services will be crucial.

Martin Warren

Meanwhile, AI is cracking into the stagnant pools of untapped medical data and weaving together years of medical research from journals and text books – patching up inconsistencies and improving approaches to care, productivity and wellbeing.

The best example of this is IBM’s supercomputer, Watson.

Taking data analytics to the next level, Watson is poised to transform healthcare with its ability to read 200 million pages of text in just three seconds – crunching its way through the healthcare data explosion.

To maintain trust, patients’ data must be stored and processed in compliance with data privacy law, balancing the value of medical discovery with the value of data protection – ultimately maintaining medical integrity

For example, having acquired Merge Healthcare last year, IBM Watson Health is interpreting thousands of medical images, spotting patterns that would not be seen with the naked eye, using deep learning.

It is also creating insight into the treatment of rare forms of childhood diseases, in partnership with Boston’s Children’s Hospital.

By fully utilising the massive volumes of medical data available to us, we can uncover, start to identify, diagnose, and treat a range of diseases. But, to maintain trust, patients’ data must be stored and processed in compliance with data privacy law, balancing the value of medical discovery with the value of data protection – ultimately maintaining medical integrity.

As AI continues to personalise healthcare, and Watson speeds through its assessment of DNA structures in order to create usable genetic profiles, cross-referenced with a range of medical literature, ultimately recommending a course of drugs in a matter of moments – those in charge of medical governance are wiping their eyes.

No-one can argue that improving efficiency in healthcare is a bad thing, so long as it is complemented with secure, compliant, and agile data management

It is a feat of modern medicine that would be completely impossible without AI and no-one can argue that improving efficiency in healthcare is a bad thing, so long as it is complemented with secure, compliant, and agile data management.

The exponential increase in medical data and improved patient outcomes must be balanced against the essential need for patient trust in the governance of healthcare.

The launch of Care.data in 2013 – when the NHS sought to centralise patient health and social care data – demonstrated the sensitivity surrounding UK health records.

Changes in health policy the previous year had allowed for the legal sharing of patient information with stakeholders outside of the NHS, or even the medical research community.

Care.data was the embodiment of these changes, leading to questions of the extent of ‘anonymity’ and unhappy doctors who felt they were compromising patient trust.

The essential lesson to come from this communications disaster was the importance of educating healthcare professionals on data management and understanding the basics of how patient data is processed.

The onslaught of popular health apps that help us to keep track of our wellness, integrating our healthcare with everyday life, provide a potential danger zone for medical data privacy.

Healthcare providers need to take the time to educate themselves on the implications of their data management decisions, who can access and who processes their data

Companies often don’t realise the large amount of data that their apps collect and share with third parties, for example, advertisers, analytics companies, social networks, and hosted solutions. The key here is education, from users and patients to stakeholders and owners.

With the explosion of healthcare data, how it is stored is more important than ever.

Patients need to consider whether they want third parties knowing they’re pregnant, have HIV, or are undergoing chemotherapy.

Healthcare providers need to take the time to educate themselves on the implications of their data management decisions, who can access and who processes their data.

Whether to ditch the public cloud entirely, or utilise the benefits of the hybrid cloud like the solution provided by NetApp – storing mission-critical data on premises, while moving cold data to the public cloud – is the first question Healthcare IT decision makers should be considering.

One thing’s for sure. The medical data explosion will be fueling future progressions, whether it’s AI or VR, so getting to grips with the storage of healthcare data is essential, now

As UK healthcare practitioners came to understand, following the miscommunication at the Care.data crossroads, that it is everyone’s responsibility to understand the importance of patient data privacy. But, to safeguard this, they must ensure compliance with regulations set in place to protect data and adhered to by cloud providers.

The future of healthcare is AI.

With IBM’s Watson Healthcare still in its infancy, the potential for innovation is immeasurable. But one thing’s for sure. The medical data explosion will be fueling future progressions, whether it’s AI or VR, so getting to grips with the storage of healthcare data is essential, now.

With the right cloud infrastructure in place, practitioners can go a long way to ensuring the security of patient data.

In the meantime, healthcare providers are tasked with the challenge of safeguarding medical data, while opening up the medical sphere with enough data to maximise the transformation of healthcare.

Our future health and patient data privacy is left in the balance, with trust as our only pivot.

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