September 22, 2017

Flickr Creative Commons, Credit: Michael Krigsman

In 2017, the fact that companies have access to personal data about us is common knowledge. But the data available to companies goes beyond just what websites you browse and where you’ve checked in on social media. Your (anonymized) medical information can be sold to drug companies to promote drugs - and to sell those to doctors in a process that is, shockingly, legal. Adam Tanner, a writer-in-residence at Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science, has written a book on this called “Our Bodies, Our Data: How Companies Make Billions Selling Our Medical Records”. We talk with him about the alarming trade in health data.

Three Takeaways 

  • While most patients are likely unaware that their personal health data may be sold, they are not alone. Tanner explains that many of the people in a doctor’s office likely don’t know as well. The decision to sell medical records generally happens on a national or hospital-wide scale through data and drug companies.
  • When your data gets sold, it’s anonymized. However, it can include your age, gender and a history of where you’ve lived, potentially making it easy for companies to identify you.
  • With non-medical data, there are several measures that can be taken to protect your information. With health data, the issue is vastly more difficult, since people generally have only one insurer, and electronic health systems can include fine print in their contracts which allow them to trade this data.

More reading 

innovation hub, pri, Adam Tanner, Kara Miller, WGBH

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