How Much of Our Healthcare Data Do We Really Want to Know?

At California-Based Rock West Solutions, analyzing big data and applying advanced digital signal processing techniques is a big part of what they do. They work with companies in the healthcare sector to improve everything from medical devices to how data analytics are used to improve delivery solutions. It’s hard to argue against the potential for big data to transform healthcare.

Combining big data and healthcare delivery is not without its critics, however. All the advances we have seen over the last five or six years have some people asking if there is a need to start thinking about limits. For example, a handful of people in Australia are seriously questioning how much healthcare data people really want to know.

An ABC News article posted in early September (2018) asks readers whether they want their insurance companies to know about their potential cancer risks. And what about the readers themselves? Do they really want to know if data analytics show they are at elevated risk for the potentially deadly disease?

Concerning the Future Potential

Suspecting that your insurance company knows you are a high-risk candidate for cancer invokes images of big brother dictating a person’s every move. After all, that kind of knowledge in the hands of an insurance provider could lead to all sorts of negative consequences.

This reality suggests we need to do something we are not very good at, historically speaking: taking a serious look at the future potential for harm our technology possesses. Thinking along those lines requires going a lot further than just coming up with the “social contract” ABC News is calling for.

We do need that new social contract between patients and those who have access to their healthcare data. But a social contract alone is not going to cut it. We will also need limits – hard and fast limits defined by law – governing the extent to which data can be analyzed, stored, and used. What we are talking about is a right to medical privacy here.

The Example of Online Privacy

Earlier in 2018, the European Union implemented controversial data protection legislation that all but forces companies to be responsible with customer data. For right or wrong, EU leaders felt the legislation necessary because certain players were unwilling to embrace self-imposed limits on how data is used. The need for the same sort of thing exists in the healthcare sector.

As companies like Rock West Solutions make it easier for healthcare sector companies to harvest, analyze, and make effective use of big data, there are probably going to be some players who see no limits on the data they collect. For example, the possibility of an insurance company dropping a customer or raising rates excessively due to cancer risks is very real.

That does not even address the question of whether patients really want to know. How about you? Would you want to know if you are statistically at risk for cancer? Perhaps, if knowing would also dictate certain lifestyle changes you could make to prevent getting ill. But short of that, knowing your risk might only lead to a life of constant fear over something you probably have no control over.

Big data is changing healthcare for the better. There’s little argument about that. But with every great technological advancement comes the real risk of abuse. How much of our healthcare data do we really want to know? How much of it actually should be known? These are questions that need answers before big data opens a door that cannot be closed.

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