Birgir Jakobsson - "We Have a Unique Situation with Our System to Get Health Care That Is Really State of the Art"

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Apr 22, 2015
by Stuart Milne
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Birgir Jakobsson - "We Have a Unique Situation with Our System to Get Health Care That Is Really State of the Art"

Surgeon General of Iceland tells how his country is specially suited to using Big Data to improve population health Birgir Jakobsson at Session 548 | The Promise of Data

Is Iceland the perfect country for using Big Data in health care?

With a population of only 325,000 concentrated largely in urban areas, an entirely public health care system, and genealogies a millennium old, surgeon general and head of the Icelandic Directorate of Health Birgir Jakobsson says his country is in a unique position to use Big Data to improve the health of its people.

While participating in Session 548 | The Promise of Data: Will this Bring a Revolution in Health Care?, Jakobsson told Salzburg Global about the health care situation in Iceland and the Icelandic Digital Health Initiative created with help from his fellow participants.

“Iceland has a long tradition of keeping records of its health care system,” he said. “The cancer register in Iceland is very comprehensive, dating back to the early 1950s. The population has genealogical data from the beginning of civilization in Iceland 1,000 years ago. You can track the family trees back to the ancestors of the Icelandic population.

“More importantly, you recently have access to the genetic data of the population. About 150,000 people, half the population, has been genetically mapped. So you have immense possibilities of tracking diseases and risks, and using this data for creating health in the future.

“This has not been done as yet, so this is a challenge. That’s why I was very interested in coming here to Salzburg. How can we use this data to benefit the health of the population?

“I think we have a unique situation with our system to get health care that is really state of the art in the future. We have had some economic difficulties for the last eight years or so, but the country is slowly coming back. I think if we do this wisely, learn from others and use our data, we have a marvelous possibility to create a health care system that is really one of the best.”

Jakobsson has been working with the Mayo Clinic in the USA and visiting countries across Europe to learn from their health systems.

“I think it’s very important to keep contact with as broad a network as possible, and this is a very good opportunity for that at Salzburg Global Seminar.

“We have our databases in Iceland, and we are discussing how they are made accessible for researchers and transparent so the population understands the benefits of these databases.

“What I have also learned here is the importance of collaboration with people keeping databases and quality records in other countries. In that respect we are very much looking to the other Scandinavian countries.”



As well as an enlarged network of contacts, Jakobsson was also able to bring home an Icelandic Digital Health Initiative designed by the participants of his working group.

“It is an initiative to use the available data in the interests of public health in Iceland,” he said. “The databases there have been used a lot for research, but as I see it, they are not giving back what the Icelandic population should have out of it. That has been my concern now since I entered office – how can I do that in the interest of public health?”

The initiative calls for a personalized medicine approach, beginning with the selection of patient needs, and aims for the highest intervention impact possible by health providers.

With the data already available thanks to Iceland’s thorough record keeping, it would be relatively easy to identify a list of patients and diseases that deserved priority attention, with the public continually informed of progress and able to give feedback to the steering committees overseeing data use in Iceland.

Participants decided they needed to find a business model for making this happen, with incentives for key stakeholders among the public, government and private industry.

“I’m very pleased with the working group I was working with,” Jakobsson said.

“They were really helpful and engaged in the problem and understood it from the beginning. They had the knowledge to put it together into an initiative that I will be able to at least try to put into reality in Iceland. That is more than I expected when I came here.

“I will go back and present this document to my own office and collaborators, and then I will take it to the government level. Then we will see what happens.”


Birgir Jakobsson was a participant at the session The Promise of Data: Will This Bring a Revolution in Health Care? The session is part of the Salzburg Global series “Health and Health Care Innovation in the 21st Century” and was held in collaboration with the Mayo Clinic, Arizona State University, The Dartmouth Center for Health Care Delivery Science, and in association with the Karolinska Insititutet. More information on the session can be found here: www.salzburgglobalseminar.org/go/548

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