We’re currently witnessing an explosion of digital health applications and software that is producing rapidly growing volumes of consumer and patient information. As a result, healthcare organizations are sitting on large stores of data that have significant value beyond the primary clinical use for which it was collected.
Identity theft and health care fraud are common headlines. Most everyone has heard about them as well as tips to avoid being a victim. However, there is more to be concerned about and there may be nothing we can do to protect ourselves.
A growing number of companies collect and analyze medical data over long periods from hundreds of millions of hospitals’ and doctors’ records, as well as from prescription and insurance claims and laboratory tests. What they do with the data turns it into a valuable commodity. There are other businesses that are willing to pay for the insights that they can glean from such collections to guide their investments in the pharmaceutical industry, for example, or tailor an advertising campaign promoting a new drug.
The ever expanding sale of our medical information is creating some anxiety, not just among privacy advocates, but among health industry insiders as well. The entire health care system depends on patients trusting that their information will be kept confidential. As more learn that others have insight into what happens between them and their medical providers, they may be less willing to describe their conditions or even seek help at all.
There are so many things that could go wrong. Simply removing a person’s name, address and social security number from a medical record may well have protected anonymity at one time. However, that has changed. Straightforward data-mining tools can rummage through multiple databases containing anonymized and non-anonymized data to re-identify the individuals from their ostensibly private medical records. Computer scientists have repeatedly shown how easy it can be to crack seemingly anonymous data sets.
Awareness and being informed seems to the best solution to preventing unwarranted identification. Seeking more detailed consent cannot, by itself, stop the erosion of patient privacy, but it will raise awareness. Trust in the medical system is too important.
Melody K. Smith
Sponsored by Access Integrity, delivering advanced technology solutions for full and complete compliant processing of medical transactions to the healthcare industry.