E-Patient Update:  Is Technology Getting Ahead Of Medical Privacy?

Posted on December 9, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

I don’t know about y’all, but I love, love, love interacting with Google’s AI on my smartphone. It’s beyond convenient – it seems to simply read my mind and dish out exactly the content I needed.

That could have unwelcome implications, however, when you bear in mind that Google might be recording your question. Specifically, for a few years now, Google’s AI has apparently been recording users’ conversations whenever it is triggered. While Google makes no secret of the matter, and apparently provides directions on how to erase these recordings, it doesn’t affirmatively ask for your consent either — at least not in any terribly conspicuous way — though it might have buried the request in a block of legal language.

Now, everybody has a different tolerance for risk, and mine is fairly high. So unless an entity does something to suggest to me that it’s a cybercrook, I’m not likely to lose any sleep over the information it has harvested from my conversations. In my way of looking at the world, the odds that gathering such information will harm me are low, while the odds collection will help me are much greater. But I know that others feel much differently than myself.

For these reasons, I think it’s time to stop and take a look at whether we should regulate potential medical conversations with intermediaries like Google, whether or not they have a direct stake in the healthcare world. As this example illustrates, just because they’re neither providers, payers or business associates doesn’t mean they don’t manage highly sensitive healthcare information.

In thinking this over, my first reaction is to throw my hands in the air and give up. After all, how can we possibly track or regulate the flow of medical information falls outside the bounds of HIPAA or state privacy laws? How do we decide what behavior might constitute an egregious leak of medical information, and what could be seen as a mild mistake, given that the rules around provider and associate behavior may not apply? This is certainly a challenging problem.

But the more I consider these issues, the more I am convinced that we could at least develop some guidelines for handling of medical information by non-medical third parties, including what type of consumer disclosures are required when collecting data that might include healthcare information, what steps the intermediary takes to protect the data and how to opt out of data collection.

Given how complex these issues are, it’s unlikely we would succeed at regulating them effectively the first time, or even the fourth or fifth. And realistically, I doubt we can successfully apply the same standards to non-medical entities fielding health questions as we can to providers or business associates. That being said, I think we should pay more attention to such issues. They are likely to become more important, not less, as time goes by.