Strengthening Protection of Patient Medical Data

Adam Tanner | The Century Foundation | January 10, 2017

Americans seeking medical care expect a certain level of privacy. Indeed, the need for patient privacy is a principle dating back to antiquity, and is codified in U.S. law, most notably the Privacy Rule of the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which establishes standards that work toward protecting patient health information. But the world of information is rapidly changing, and in this environment, U.S. rules fall precariously short in protecting our medical data.

What many patients do not know is that, today, much of their health information is routinely sold and traded—in anonymized form—to third parties in for-profit commerce unrelated to their specific treatment. After a person gets medical care, pharmacies, insurers, labs, electronic record systems, and the middlemen connecting all these entities automatically transmit patient data directly to what is, in effect, a big health data bazaar. This trade—which has nothing to do with the individual’s treatment or insurance processing—is allowed by HIPAA privacy rules only if the patient’s name is removed. The result is a blizzard of transactions hidden to the public in which companies—called data miners—buy, sell, and barter anonymized but intimate profiles of hundreds of millions of Americans.

Such secondary use of patient data can have good intentions. For example, massive anonymized patient databases can help pharmaceutical companies develop and market effective drugs and treatments. The profiles that data miners produce remove the easy identifiers about a patient, such as name, birthdate, and so on, but they also leave certain information in the profiles, such as the doctor’s name, to allow drug companies to target sales to individual doctors based on their prescribing patterns...