Jul 07 2014

Intrusive Healthcare

Published by at 10:33 pm under Big Data,Privacy

Soon your doctor may be giving you a call to discuss your buying habits and what they mean to your health.  Carolinas HealthCare is starting a program that looks at your buying habits based on public records, store loyalty programs and credit card purchases.  Most of which was stuff we thought was supposed to be private and protected by law, but turns out to be accessible by anyone with enough money and the big data computing power to comb through it all.

On the surface, this effort is laudable.  Your doctor and your health care provider have a vested interest in helping you develop good habits such as exercise and taking your prescriptions regularly.  The better your health, the happier your life tends to be and the less money they have to spend on you overall.  It makes sense when you look at it as a long term trend to combat a nation that’s growing wider all the time and it’s an extension of trying to push for more proactive health care overall.  But the potential for abuse is simply staggering!

One of the examples used in the Business Week article suggests a asthmatic who’s in the emergency room, so the doctor checks to see if he’s been buying cigarettes, the pollen count where he lives, etc.  Why would giving a hospital and the doctor this level of access into a patient’s life ever be thought of as a good idea?  The number of things that could go wrong with this boggle the mind.  Yes, most doctors are ethical and wouldn’t take advantage of the data.  But it doesn’t take much for the temptation offered by this level of access into a patient’s life to blossom into a form of cyber-voyeurism. It wouldn’t take much self-justification to turn the best of intentions into intrusiveness that’s inappropriate at the best of times.  I don’t want to get a call from my doctor when I pick up an extra tub of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie at the store.  (It was for the Spawn, honest!)

The potential for abuse by doctors is just one of the first direct problems I have with my data being shared to health care.  If doctors have access to my non-healthcare data who else is going to have access to it?  I’m sure the billing department would love to have a direct line to the information as well, so they could hunt me down if I was late making a payment or so they could vet me before authorizing an expensive procedure.  There’s also all the administrators of the systems and everyone who has access to those systems when they’re left unlocked around the hospital.  

The biggest worry I have though is actually the third parties who’d want the data.  Hospitals are already a tempting target for evil doers of all kind because of the data they have.  If we add credit card & loyalty card data to that mix, it becomes the ultimate treasure trove for identity theft and financial data.  While hospitals try to keep their networks secure, when it comes down to it, the ability of a doctor to access data in order to save a life trumps security by an order of magnitude, so security comes in a distant second.  So why would we think it’s a good idea to pool even more of our data in these facilities?

Final thought:  why are the credit card companies and store loyalty programs even allowed to sell access to this data in the first place?  Inquiring minds would like to know.

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