When Big Data Meets Big Healthcare
“Hello, Mr. Jones, this is Mary from Dr. Smith’s office. We notice that you’ve been buying a lot of Twinkies lately and we think you should come in for a blood sugar checkup.” How would you feel if you received such a phone call from your doctor’s office – alarmed, outraged, betrayed? Well, brace yourself because this is The Next Big Thing in health care...
Big Data, Big Brother, and Big Healthcare
As computing power increases, and the cost of data storage decreases, software has emerged to analyze the enormous volumes of consumer information that are accessible to data brokers. As a result, it becomes possible for doctors, hospitals, and insurance companies to intrude on your privacy in new and disturbing ways. And it's already happening in several States.
Carolinas HealthCare System operates over 900 medical facilities, from hospitals to private physicians’ practices, in North and South Carolina. CHCS is buying data on consumer expenditures from a data broker who prefers to remain anonymous. The data comes from many sources including credit card records, supermarket loyalty card programs, health club membership rosters, and so on.
The health behemoth is plugging everything that Big Data knows about you into its computer model and trying to predict exactly who in its service area is at high risk of serious health problems. Then people start getting phone calls, mailings, and unsolicited emails.
“The idea is to use big data and predictive models … to find someone running into trouble that we can reach out to and try to help out,” according to Dr. Michael Dulin, chief clinical officer for analytics and outcomes at CHCS.
I am reminded of Thoreau’s Law, purportedly a quotation from the author of On Walden Pond: “If you should see a man approaching you with the obvious intention of doing you good, you should run for your life.”
Dulin is quoted in a recent Bloomberg article on Big Data and Big Health Care. He is as scary as only a True Believer can be. He seems utterly convinced that preserving your physical health is the only thing that matters, and he’s perfectly willing to stomp all over your privacy to do it.
In Dulin’s grand vision, a hospital will be able to tell if an asthmatic patient has been refilling his prescriptions regularly, or has been buying cigarettes, and do something about it. His “predictive model” will also estimate your odds of having a heart attack by looking at the foods you buy at the supermarket, and whether or not you belong to a health club.
You Got a Problem With That?
Dulin acknowledges that some people may have a problem with this; he is “considering” whether to let them opt out of the predictive modeling and “pro-active intervention” program. Wow.
The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which has a virtual monopoly on health care in that metropolitan area, is using demographic data instead of individual purchases data. Based on your Zip code, whether you own a car, the number of persons in your household, your income, and similar demographics, UPMC tries to predict whether you’re going to the emergency room soon. Then they start the “outreach” contacts which are intended to keep you out of the ER.
No car? UPMC will tell you about alternative transportation options. No kids and make less than $50,000? That means you’re more likely to visit an ER instead of a primary care physician, so UPMC will try to hook you up with a PCP or nurse practitioner to call first when you’ve got the sniffles.
The reason for this heightened interest in “pro-active” health care is money, of course. First, the Affordable Healthcare Act (aka Obamacare) provides financial incentives for hospitals to improve the long-term health outcomes of patients. Second, a growing number of hospitals are also insuring their patients, so they have an insurance company’s pecuniary interest in minimizing ER use and encouraging – some might say “enforcing” – patient compliance with doctors’ orders.
Traditional insurers are using Big Data to “intervene” in their customers’ lives, too. The Bloomberg article cites Jorjanne Murry, a diabetes patient in Charlotte, NC, who says she’s getting calls from her health insurer – not her doctor, her insurance provider – wanting to discuss her daily habits. She says she usually ignores such calls.
Here's an even less pleasant thought... If data brokers have access to this information about healthcare and consumer activities, then I fully expect that the government will as well. Recent news stories have proven that information is shared rather easily amongst federal agencies, politicians and political operatives - in spite of the existing laws and safeguards supposedly in place to protect your privacy.
I expect to see privacy advocates conduct an intervention of their own into this invasive trend. I know that if I get an unsolicited call from my doctor’s office about my eating habits, somebody is going to need an audiologist.
Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 8 Jul 2014
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Article information: AskBobRankin -- When Big Data Meets Big Healthcare (Posted: 8 Jul 2014)
Copyright © 2005 - Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved