As more hospitals mine big data to improve services and tackle illnesses, the central government has vowed to safeguard patients’ personal information with a new regulation on how this data can be collected, stored and used.
Data used for analysis by the healthcare industry include people’s basic medical condition, general physical condition, disease control and prevention, food safety issues, lifestyle and even genome.
However, “this big data concerns public health and national biological security”, according to Jin Xiaotao, vice-minister of the National Health and Family Planning Commission. “Regulation is necessary,” he said, “especially given that China seeks to develop healthcare data as an asset.”
The regulation, which Jin said will be released soon, will define the basics of how big data related to health and medical care can be collected, managed and used, and who can be involved.
A management committee independent from government agencies related to the big data industry will be set up to safeguard data security, he said.
Li Tao, head of the commission’s development and research center, said the regulation will help address the safety and privacy concerns surrounding data management.
Left unregulated, the industry might lead to leakage of individual health information for sale to unscrupulous businesses and affect the victims’ daily life negatively, he said.
For instance, a pregnant woman might receive advertisements from baby product companies after having “her information sold by someone at the hospital where she went”. In extreme cases, the leakage of health data, particularly the genome and medical record, might lead to potential discrimination in the job market and insurance applications, he added.
The planned regulation comes after the State Council issued a multidepartment guideline in June aimed at promoting and regulating the use of big data to improve healthcare.
By 2020, a centralized, authorized and uniform health and medical care big data platform is expected to be established. It will handle data collection and storage, reporting and security management, according to the guideline.
“Improving people’s health will be central among the goals of such a system,” Jin said.
In addition, Jin stressed that improvements in health would also play a key role in fostering a new economic pillar as a result of big data applications.
State-level development strategy sets out the establishment of a national big data center for health and seven regional centers as well as data research and innovation centers looking at specific areas, such as cancer, he said.
These research centers will be set up with partner institutions and companies from home and abroad, Jin said, adding, “We will be open to applications from all over the world.”
Liao Jieyuan, CEO of WeDoctor Group, a major online healthcare provider in China, said the big data development would lay the foundation for medical artificial intelligence and its clinical use, particularly in hard-to-reach rural areas where quality medical resources are harder to access.
In March, WeDoctor donated 100 million yuan ($14.5 million) to help establish a medical AI research center at Zhejiang University committed to big data mining, analysis and transformation to help with clinical treatment.
Jin said the center’s launch on March 25 shows that medical AI is a leading development in the progress of medical science.