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The trade-off to big data in healthcare: Privacy

Big data in healthcare presents many positive possibilities for patient care. But as David Lazarus writes in his recent column in the Los Angeles Times, while big data presents many benefits — including being able to anticipate a patient’s health problems and intervene early — it could also have negative implications for patient privacy. To truly achieve big data and reap the benefits in healthcare means individual privacy would be sacrificed for the greater good, Lazarus writes.

Lazarus uses as an example the nearly $92 million contract between the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and defense giant Northrop Grumman that is currently focused on reducing fraud but will eventually focus on anticipating medical disorders by using technology to predict people’s healthcare needs.

That predictive analytics capability will be based on not only the patient’s interaction with doctors, hospitals and pharmacies, but also on other sources such as social media. It is one of the largest efforts now underway to create “a healthcare crystal ball capable of looking into patients’ futures,” Lazarus says.

In the column, Lazarus paints a picture of how all of this would work.

A patient complains to their doctor about losing weight. That patient is also taking a cholesterol medication and has also posted a Facebook status, for example, about feeling stressed due to divorce. Or they have posted on LinkedIn looking for a new job. A big data algorithm would be able to connect all those dots and alert that patient’s doctor to what’s going on and that the patient may be running a risk of a heart attack. Then, the doctor would be able to immediately intervene.

But the tradeoff here is individual privacy. Indeed, the more data that is shared and included, the more effective big data will be.

Understandably, people are wary of sharing their data and having it be stolen.

John Halamka, M.D., CIO at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, believes that if everyone simply shared most everything, it would actually be a way of staying ahead of data breaches.

He told SearchHealthIT in a video interview: “If you just decide your healthcare data doesn’t matter, share it with all the doctors and all the people who need it then the hackers can hack it, whatever. It’s already open source.”