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The possible downside of data sharing in healthcare

Many in healthcare agree that big data, data analytics and data sharing in healthcare are important. In fact, many are greatly investing in these areas. For example, Marc Probst, CIO at Intermountain Healthcare in Salt Lake City, said his organization is heavily investing in data analytics and John Halamka, CIO at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston is a huge advocate for data sharing, especially because data sharing and data analytics helped his wife overcome breast cancer.

However, a Bloomberg Business article argues otherwise.

Based off the documents of a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) investigation, the article recounts the experience of two women –a mother and a daughter — back in 2008. A clinician called up the daughter, who was a prospective customer applying for health insurance, to ask her why she had left the names of several medications she was taking off the application she submitted to Aetna, the article said.

The clinician then proceeded to name the medications, the dates they were prescribed and the doctors who prescribed them. But the woman insisted that the information was wrong, the article said. As it turns out, those medications were her mother’s, and this slip-up inadvertently exposed medical conditions the mother had been hiding from her daughter.

After the mother filed a complaint with HHS, it was discovered that the women’s medical records had been mixed up in a database maintained by a supplier to Aetna, the article said. Eventually, HHS determined no privacy violations had occurred because the two women figured out the link between the records themselves and were not told by Aetna or the supplier, the article said.

Ifeoma Ajunwa, an assistant professor of law at the University of the District of Columbia in Washington, told Bloomberg that medical data is legally shared with more third parties than many Americans realize.

“A major concern with prescription databases is that they provide ample opportunities for invasions of privacy,” Ajunwa said in the article.

Although the mother-daughter incident occurred in 2008, the Bloomberg article argues that because the medical data industry is projected to surpass $10 billion by 2020, according to McKinsey & Co., this story is a cautionary tale of how big data can go wrong in healthcare.

“The emergence of shared medical records makes errors all the more dangerous because they can propagate more easily between providers,” the article said.

Although the sharing of data can increase the chance of mistakes and mix-ups, it’s important to recognize that these types of occurrences are nothing new in the world of healthcare and such mistakes have and can still happen regardless of data sharing, and regardless of whether a patient’s record is electronic or paper-based.