Bad News: Your Medical Records Are Probably For Sale

Electronic medical records are kind of cool: they help your doctors beam your prescription records back and forth from pharmacies and are supposed to save everyone money and time. What you may not realize, though, is that digital records are easy to share, and what’s easy to share is easy to sell. Somewhere, your most private medical data is probably for sale.

Blame your state health department. Bloomberg Businessweek explains that digital records make it very easy for hospitals to share aggregate data with state agencies for research and population-tracking purposes. This data has any identifying information stripped off before it leaves the hospital, which means that your privacy is ensured, right? Well, not so fast. While researchers have no evidence that anyone is actually doing this, it is theoretically possible for data miners to buy this population-wide health data from the state government, then plug in other information from public databases and firms that track consumer behavior.

In practical terms, this means that it wouldn’t be hard to put together different puzzle pieces and figure out who the 50-year-old man with small-cell lung cancer in ZIP code 87104 is. The histories that researchers in Washington pieced together are even scarier: they identified one man who had pancreatic cancer and had attempted suicide. He didn’t want to be publicly identified. One person who researchers identified solely from the data went public to tell everyone how much this whole thing scares the crap out of him. “I feel I’ve been violated,” one retiree said. Researchers found him by matching up health records of his injuries with a local news story about a motorcycle crash he was involved in.

Your Medical Records Are for Sale [Bloomberg Businessweek]

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