The world can learn more than meets the eye from Israel’s vaccine program

Explainer video by Linor Grisariu, Start-Up Nation Central

Israel is rolling out the coronavirus vaccine at breakneck speed, having already given the first dose to approximately half of its entire population. Consequently, the country is truly under the global microscope. Pharmaceutical companies and global leaders alike are closely observing the process and its impact. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization is expected to send a delegation to Israel to examine the outcomes. However, if the world really wants to learn from Israel’s unprecedented vaccine drive, it should look beyond the raw data. Policymakers should also understand what made Israel the ideal test laboratory in the first place.   

Over a period of decades, Israel has built a well-oiled healthcare system, fueled by the integration of data and innovative technology. The national healthcare system is administered through four Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs), which were established decades ago (some, almost 100 years ago). They serve the entire population – as both insurers and healthcare service providers; together, these four HMOs provide national coverage, but separately, they compete with one another. As a result, they are constantly searching for an edge on their rivals, including the implementation of advanced technologies.

One such development was the decision to digitize, benefitting medical practitioners and patients alike. Uniform (single ID) Electronic Medical Records (EMRs) contain all patients’ medical history and enable real-time segmentation according to gender, age, place of residence and medical background. In addition, over the years, each HMO has developed digital communication networks, including mobile apps, websites, emails, and text messages, which enable automated direct communication to patients. In other words, advanced digitization means that Israel’s health system is today primed for the perfect pandemic trifecta – to prioritize vaccination, treatment, and follow-up.

Another innovation has also been key to this effort. Over a decade ago, the Israeli Ministry of Health made a significant investment in the development of a complementary software platform that allows sharing patients’ medical records across healthcare organizations, including HMOs and hospitals in real time. This has enabled better coordination and treatment. Crucially, this platform can be used in emergency situations, like today’s COVID-19 vaccination operation.

Naturally, questions about data privacy come to mind. Although such critical information is shared between different players, it does not mean that data privacy is compromised. Quite the opposite. Israel’s famed cybersecurity expertise has led to the development and implementation of advanced data security systems. These are employed by the Health Ministry to enable anonymization, the creation of synthetic databases, or access to aggregated data only (based on non-identifiable statistics). The result is advanced and safe data sharing.

Unsurprisingly, this has opened the door to big data analysis. Secondary access to the medical records of millions of Israeli citizens opens vast possibilities for in-depth analyses and research. Many scholars, as well as companies, big and small, have already signed agreements with HMOs. They are using a variety of analytical tools, including artificial intelligence and natural language processing technologies. The data that this will glean from the vaccination drive, can generate powerful insights into the safety and efficacy of the vaccines and the optimal way of administering them.

If this knowledge does prove to be the magic dust that the global medical community is looking for, it will not have been plucked from thin air. Perhaps the most important lesson that other countries can learn is that Israel’s ability to conduct a lightning vaccination program is the result of decades of development. It is the product of an extensive process. Much like a mathematical equation, understanding this process is the key to arriving at the correct answer.

The international community would do well to take a similar long-term approach. Yes, Israel is an optimal beta site for Pfizer and Moderna to validate their vaccines, and for the World Health Organization to formulate a global immunization strategy. Using the country as a beta site has only been made possible through a unique combination, fusing advanced technological capabilities with a highly digitized national healthcare system. This integration of innovation is the real lesson of Israel’s vaccination drive. It may just be the key towards ensuring that the global community is in a better position to tackle the next global health crisis.

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