Traditionally, health tourism was something states sought to discourage. In 2017, this changed and countries like the United Arab Emirates ('UAE') are implementing plans to become one of the top ten destinations for heath tourism. A consequence of the rise of medical tourism is an increase in the amount of patient data. Nadim Bardawil, Senior Associate at BSA Ahmad Bin Hezeem & Associates LLP, discusses how the protection of medical data is developing in the UAE.

Innovation is key to ensuring efficient data protection

Over the past few years, Dubai has become a leading tourism destination in the UAE. By the year 2020, Dubai is planning to become a top global destination for medical tourism, attracting more than a million medical tourists.

Ensuring data security is paramount to creating trust and transparency between patients and their healthcare providers. Accurate information will be provided by patients when they are certain that their information will be kept safe from damage, unauthorised access, and illegal interception. The importance of reliable information must not be taken lightly. This is one of the many reasons why jurisdictions have developed data protection laws that ensure control over personal information provided by patients, as well as taking the necessary measures to penalise unauthorised access to such data, as its disclosure is likely to infringe on the rights of the individuals concerned.

Protection of patient privacy: a nationwide objective

There is no body of legislation specific to data protection in the UAE comparable to those applicable in Europe or the US. However, there are a number of laws that have not been drafted with data protection in mind, but nonetheless apply to the protection of personal data.

At the forefront of these laws, a constitutional right to privacy under Article 31 of the UAE's Constitution, clearly stipulates that 'freedom of communication by post, telegraph, or other means of communication and the secrecy thereof shall be guaranteed in accordance with the law.' When secrets are altered, disclosed or intercepted illegally, sanctions are imposed by Federal Law No. 3 of 1987 ('Penal Code').

In addition, the Dubai International Financial Centre ('DIFC') has enacted specific laws regulating the use of personal data. These only apply toof health tourism individuals or legal persons operating within or from the DIFC and are largely influenced by the data protection laws found in the UK. Similarly, the Data Protection Regulations 2015 also govern the processing of personal data by persons operating in the Abu Dhabi Global Market.

If we consider the medical industry, more specific laws are set out to address the issue of data collection. Both Federal Law No. 7 of 1975 concerning the Practice of Human Medicine Profession and the Ministry of Health Code of Conduct 1988 stipulate the obligation of confidentiality imposed on healthcare practitioners, where they are prohibited to share any personal information related to a patient without his/her prior consent.

In terms of the invasion of privacy, Federal Laws No. 3 and No. 5 of 2012 ('Cybercrime Law') establish the National Electronic Security Authority ('NESA') prohibiting the invasion of an individual's privacy by means of a computer network and/or electronic information and/or information technology without the prior consent of the individual and unless otherwise authorised by the law.

NESA's objective is to combat cyber crimes that paralyse networks and use or damage personal information illegally. It aims to avoid dealing with situations where system hacks cause serious damage to medical records; thus causing treatment outcomes to suffer. A similar situation the UAE is trying to avoid is the 'massive hack' that struck the National Health Service in the UK, effectively shutting down its entire system. More than 40 hospitals suffered the consequences of unauthorised access to and blocking of patient information.

The Cybercrime Law will not only impact the processing and storage of personal data in the UAE, but also inflict sanctions with regards to a number of activities, such as unauthorised access, amendment, interception, damage or use of certain types of data.

National steps towards regulating medical data

The Dubai Health Authority ('DHA') created the Home Healthcare Regulation in 2012 in order to create a 'world class integrated health system' that ensures the development of health and healthcare and promoting Dubai as a globally recognised destination for healthcare. It consists of regulations regarding the transmission of confidential information by controlling the manner and purpose of collection of patient health information. The DHA also created the Health Data and Information Analysis Department, which aims to establish transparency and confidentiality between patients and their healthcare practitioners by improving procedures relevant to handling and protecting patients' confidential information.

The DHA recently announced two initiatives that are set to power a new health record database, becoming the largest integrated patient information system in the Middle East by 2018. A unified electronic medical record system for patients across all public and private hospitals will create the first fully integrated secure patient record. This will lead to dramatic improvements in patient care as health practitioners benefit from instant access to patient records, which will lead to correct diagnoses and prompt delivery of treatments plans.

Alongside this electronic system, the DHA is getting ready to introduce a bill of rights to be given to patients before their surgeries, as well as electronic investigation procedures for cases of medical malpractice where patients will be able to submit their complaints electronically. This will not only improve healthcare services for residents, but also for medical tourists.

In addition to this, international medical tourists will be eligible for a new medical insurance scheme that will be introduced in the fall, which will provide medical malpractice insurance in cases of surgery revisions. Medical tourists will be able to stay in Dubai, free of charge, until post-surgery complications are resolved.

HAAD develops healthcare delivery

The Health Authority – Abu Dhabi ('HAAD') is responsible for the healthcare sector in Abu Dhabi. It issued the HAAD Data Standards and Procedures ('the Standards') in 2008 in order to provide a structured framework for the collection, use, and publication of confidential health information. In regard to reviewing or modifying electronic data exchanges, a panel of HAAD representatives was established in order to provide direction.

The Standards push the medical industry to develop and update standard operating policies and procedures that protect confidential health information and educate staff about such policies and procedures. They must also publish a sanctions policy that is communicated to staff in order to avoid the unauthorised storage, transmission, and access to medical health records.

Abu Dhabi's health and tourism authorities continue to develop the medical tourism sector. HAAD and the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority have recently signed an agreement to establish a medical tourism network serving patients coming from abroad. This network aims to provide highly ranked service providers for international patients seeking specialised medical treatment and expertise in Abu Dhabi.

Blockchain: New model for healthcare exchanges

Blockchain is a transparent and secure storage unit that operates without a central authority. It has the potential to store healthcare data within an unmodifiable database that makes electronic medical records more secure, efficient, and disintermediated, which will support better health outcomes for patients.

It is quite apparent that blockchain provides numerous opportunities to the healthcare system; however, it has not yet been fully adopted. There are a number of technical, organisational, and behavioural challenges that must be addressed before it can be imposed on organisations nationwide with full executive force.

In conclusion, the current trend is directed towards developing a principle-based approach by composing a charter of patient's rights and responsibilities with which medical tourists can understand their rights before arriving in Dubai for healthcare. The UAE's vision is also geared towards creating a unique digital system that enhances patient data protection, even from afar. This innovative system promises trust, transparency and organisation.

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