Event Review: Opportunities and Risks in E-Health
• University Alliance Ruhr (UA Ruhr)
• German Center for Research and Innovation (GCRI)
At present, healthcare systems worldwide are changing immensely due to digitalization and the introduction of new intelligent healthcare technologies. The way we are diagnosing, tracking, and treating diseases as well as assessing health conditions and risks is fundamentally changing. On November 4, 2015, the German Center for Research and Innovation together with the University Alliance Ruhr hosted a panel discussion on this topic of increasing importance. Three experts in the field spoke about opportunities and risks in e-health, addressing questions such as: How will we process health data in the future and protect patient privacy? In what ways will smart devices make people better informed about their health risks and treatment decisions?
The evening’s moderator Prof. Dr. Christof Paar guided the discussion by drawing upon his experience in cryptography and computer security. Prof. Dr. Paar holds the Chair for Embedded Security at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum in Germany and is also an Adjunct Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Dr. Peter Levin, Co-Founder and CEO of the start-up Amida Technology Solutions – a company that facilitates data access and processing and fosters data security – also spoke at the event. He was joined by Dr. Sam Bierstock, a former eye surgeon who founded the company Champions in Healthcare, which provides guidance and strategies for the introduction and adoption of healthcare technology. Mr. Guido Schmitz, Director of Global Packaging Design within the Innovation R&D Department at Bayer Consumer Care in Morristown, NJ, shared a more product-oriented perspective on the topic.
Prof. Dr. Paar kicked off the evening’s discussion by introducing the early 2000’s concept of “Embedding the Internet,” which has evolved over time to the “Internet of Things.” E-health represents one facet of the “Internet of Things” as it is a network that connects medical devices with Big Data processes while also facing serious security risks.
Dr. Levin touched upon these security concerns and gave a basic overview of the e-health landscape before introducing his work on federal health record programs and patient privacy. According to Dr. Levin, the “Affordable Care Act” has changed the formerly adversarial relationship between an employee seeking the best possible treatment and an employer trying to avoid costs to that of a system with authentic continuity of care. This paradigm shift, however, has created a much greater need for the exchange of patient information. In the future, everyone will require access to their personal health data as 90 percent of health insurance plans will be on the open market, according to Dr. Levin. This access to health data could help avoid medical errors resulting from the lack of exchange of vital patient data between healthcare institutions. Unfortunately, this access to patient data could also become a source of problems, if transmitted in such a way that someone could intercept the data. Today, health records are worth about ten times more than credit card records on the black market and there are various reasons for someone to want to get a hold on them, such as for submitting false claims. This is where the issue of Big Data security comes into play. Addressing the risks associated with patient data privacy, Dr. Levin recommended a system of access pattern recognition for healthcare data. Overall, he expressed that he is very optimistic that future efforts will help establish a more secure and reliable system for healthcare data use.
Dr. Sam Bierstock, President and Founder of Champions in Healthcare, shared a rather skeptical view on the current availability of patient data and its handling. The digitization of healthcare has created an enormous global market that is growing exponentially, with 3.4 billion health app users already expected by 2018, according to Dr. Bierstock. In his talk, he listed examples of innovative medical devices and technologies that now exist on the market, such as cellphone ultrasounds, intelligent bandages, artificial skin, smart contact lenses, accelerometer belts designed to prevent broken hips caused by falling, and live holographic images of human organs.
Successfully getting the vast, “incessant” amount of data collected from such devices to the people who need it in a way they can use it, however, is what Dr. Bierstock described as the main challenge in today’s digitized world. The non-standardized, non-interoperable, and insecure nature of data makes it extremely difficult to control. Furthermore, the availability and exposure of health data to patients themselves poses “an absolute nightmare” to healthcare providers, according to Dr. Bierstock, as it may, in many cases, provoke hypochondria amongst the general public. According to Dr. Bierstock, “medicine is not a digital science – you just can’t give these things to people; they have to be in the hands of professionals.” Looking ahead, the greatest challenge to our healthcare system will be advancing the effective delivery of data to clinicians, caregivers, and decision makers in an age where it is difficult to predict what the future has in store.
As the final speaker, Mr. Schmitz presented what type of e-health devices people should expect to encounter in the future. He described his approach to the healthcare sector as pragmatic, stressing that data collection is here to stay and that part of our privacy has already been lost, especially when considering online platforms like Facebook. He discussed how in his work at Bayer, developments in the healthcare market focus on the consumer. According to Mr. Schmitz, Bayer is transitioning from a chemical to a life sciences company that is exploring smart solutions as a part of this digital healthcare revolution. He described how his company is working in a variety of fields, such as healthy living, prevention, and diagnosis, with its ultimate goal being to help people with their health and to properly treat them. Currently focusing on sensors and tracking software, Mr. Schmitz discussed the importance of introducing smart technologies to various segments of society, including the elderly.
After the presentations, the speakers participated in a lively Q&A session. Audience members were particularly interested in wearable technologies and their potential security risks. One attendee questioned whether efforts were in place to track statistics on the benefits of digitalized healthcare as opposed to just the risks of data ending up in the wrong hands. Dr. Levin said that health insurance providers are especially “hungry for that data” and are conducting significant research on such numbers. Other questions from the audience concerned the potential cost reduction the healthcare system would experience due to advances in e-health, the role of federal regulation in protecting data privacy, the liability of data, and the role of international collaboration in coordinating diverging healthcare policies worldwide. The speakers and audience then continued the discussion upstairs during a reception at the German House restaurant.