De-Identification of Data in Healthcare

Posted on January 14, 2015 I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the blog network which currently consists of 10 blogs containing over 8000 articles with John having written over 4000 of the articles himself. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 16 million times. John also manages Healthcare IT Central and Healthcare IT Today, the leading career Health IT job board and blog. John is co-founder of and John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can also be found on Twitter: @techguy and @ehrandhit and LinkedIn.

Today I had a chance to sit down with Khaled El Emam, PhD, CEO and Founder of Privacy Analytics, to talk about healthcare data and the de-identification of that healthcare data. Data is at the center of the future of healthcare IT and so I was interested to hear Khaled’s perspectives on how to manage the privacy and security of that data when you’re working with massive healthcare data sets.

Khaled and I started off the conversation talking about whether healthcare data could indeed be de-identified or not. My favorite Patient Privacy Rights advocate, Deborah C. Peel, MD, has often made the case for why supposedly de-identified healthcare data is not really private or secure since it can be re-identified. So, I posed that question to Khaled and he suggested that Dr. Peel is only telling part of the story when she references stories where healthcare data has been re-identified.

Khaled makes the argument that in all of the cases where healthcare data has been reidentified, it was because those organizations did a poor job of de-identifying the data. He acknowledges that many healthcare organizations don’t do a good job de-identifying healthcare data and so it is a major problem that Dr. Peel should be highlighting. However, just because one organization does a poor job de-identifying data, that doesn’t mean that proper de-identification of healthcare data should be thrown out.

This kind of reminds me of when people ask me if EHR software is secure. My answer is always that EHR software can be more secure than paper charts. However, it depends on how well the EHR vendor and the healthcare organization’s staff have done at implementing security procedures. When it’s done right, an EHR is very secure. When it’s done wrong, and EHR could be very insecure. Khaled is making a similar argument when it comes to de-identified health data.

Khaled did acknowledge that the risks are never going to be 0. However, if you de-identify healthcare data using proper techniques, the risks are small enough that they are similar to the risks we take every day with our healthcare data. I think this is an important point since the reality is that organizations are going to access and use healthcare data. That is not going to stop. I really don’t think there’s any debate on this. Therefore, our focus should be on minimizing the risks associated with this healthcare data sharing. Plus, we should hold organizations accountable for the healthcare data sharing their doing.

Khaled also suggested that one of the challenges the healthcare industry faces with de-identifying healthcare data is that there’s a shortage of skilled professionals who know how to do it properly. I’d suggest that many who are faced with de-identifying data have the right intent, but likely lack the skills needed to ensure that the healthcare data de-identification is done properly. This isn’t a problem that will be solved easily, but should be helped as data security and privacy become more important.

What do you think of de-identification in healthcare? Is the way it’s being done a problem today? I see no end to the use of data in healthcare, and so we really need to make sure we’re de-identifying healthcare data properly.