Data has fundamentally changed the way organizations operate, a fact that is particularly true in the healthcare space. There is certainly no shortage of data to leverage — in fact, some estimates suggest that 30% of the world’s data volume is generated from the healthcare industry and the worldwide data volume is increasing at a compound annual growth rate of 23% per year. Yet despite the clear opportunity fueling this wave of data-driven transformation, only a small portion of health data is actually being utilized today. While there are many reasons that healthcare organizations may not be able to fully leverage their data holdings, one very real barrier to progress is the risk associated with data privacy and security. 

The motivation to overcome this challenge is clear: it is indisputable that increased sharing and collaboration of health data would improve healthcare and the lives of patients around the world. We have seen this play out on a global stage over the past several years. COVID-19 required that public and private entities find ways to share and collaborate with disparate, sensitive datasets, demonstrating the push-pull between protecting healthcare data and ensuring its availability to address large-scale public health challenges. Many were left scrambling to make it happen in a fast, responsible way — and that search for answers frequently led to technology-enabled solutions powered by a category known as Privacy Enhancing Technologies (PETs).

At a high level, PETs enable, enhance, and preserve the privacy of data throughout its lifecycle. This family of technologies includes homomorphic encryption and secure multiparty computation among others. While PETs are not new, recent breakthroughs along with market drivers such as digital transformation and the surge of privacy demand and regulations have driven a renewed interest in their use. In the UK, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) recently announced a series of workshops to explore new ways PETs can be leveraged in the healthcare sector, intending to use the key findings to inform healthcare organizations on how PETs can be used to share data lawfully and effectively.

PETs are most powerful when they are used to enable secure data usage across boundaries. In healthcare, that boundary might fall between entities, across privacy jurisdictions, among nations, or even just between siloed datasets within an organization’s own walls. By keeping sensitive search terms, analytics, and machine learning models protected throughout the entire processing lifecycle, PETs allows users to securely derive insight from multiple decentralized data sources, even when using highly sensitive or regulated data. Healthcare professionals, suppliers, and other stakeholders can securely share and collaborate with critical data – even when that includes sensitive patient data — without compromising sensitive search terms or the privacy of the underlying data. This secure collaboration improves outcomes through enhanced understanding, and drives faster, better informed decisions.

Additionally, PETs can be used to securely analyze data while ensuring that the sensitive content of the interaction and the results are never exposed. These capabilities improve information verification and investigation processes, protect sensitive supply chains, and allow researchers and analysts to work together to expand data inputs, build more accurate patient profiles, and improve risk models. PETs power interoperability while maintaining privacy and accuracy to help healthcare professionals gain deeper and more meaningful insights. The healthcare industry, along with all of us who rely on its services, stand to benefit greatly from the collaborative insights these technologies enable.

Innovation in healthcare hinges on the ability to tap into the broadest healthcare data ecosystem available. Access to more data will lead to better analytical models and more valuable insights and predictions which have the potential to improve patient outcomes, predict disease outbreaks, reduce preventable diseases, decrease healthcare costs, and improve the quality of life in general. PETs will help ensure that healthcare’s digital transformation is built on a private and secure foundation and that data can be utilized to its fullest potential.

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