How Do We Balance Improved Outcomes with Protecting Personal Information?

There’s an interesting article by the Pacific Standard (never heard of them before now) about the “hidden market” of medical data that exists. The final paragraph provides a great summary of the challenges we face when it comes to health data:

There is no perfect way to balance the competing priorities of using big data for improved health outcomes and protecting our personal information. Opinions on which interests should come first will differ—and should. But the debate cannot be open, honest, or effective if major companies like Walgreens or Safeway are secretive about what they do. People are often generous when it comes to volunteering personal data for the purpose of advancing medicine. They are less so when it comes to enriching sellers of information. Either way, the proper course of action is disclosure. Simply put, if our medical data is being bought and sold, we deserve to know it—and have a say. Perhaps making our data available to others is as helpful to medicine as IMS claims. But shouldn’t that be up to us?

That’s the best summary of balancing improved outcomes and personal information that I’ve ever read. We all want better outcomes and I think that most of us believe that the right healthcare data will get us to better outcomes. We also all want our data to be protected from people who will use it inappropriately. The balance between the two competing priorities will never be perfect.

The reality is that there’s going to be more and more healthcare data available about all of us. Much of that data is going to be shared with a large number of organizations. Most people are just fine with that sharing assuming they believe the sharing will help them receive better care. However, there does need to be some mechanism of transparency and disclosure about when and how data is used. That doesn’t happen today, but it should happen.

The challenge is that pandora’s already out of the box. The data is already flowing a lot of places and putting in accountability now will be a real challenge. Not that I’m against challenging things, but we’re kidding ourselves if we think that accountability and transparency around where and when are data is shared is going to be easy to accomplish. First, companies are going to be dragged kicking and screaming to make it happen. Some because they know they’re doing some things that are at least in the grey area and some are totally shady. Others aren’t doing anything inappropriate, but they realize the costs to implement transparency and accountability for the health data they share is going to be very high. A high cost project that doesn’t add any more revenue is a hard business proposition.

While I’m not hopeful that we’ll see a widespread transparency about what health data’s being shared where, I do think that some forward thinking healthcare companies could push this agenda forward. It will likely happen with some of the companies who have avoided the grey and shady areas of health data sharing that want to create a competitive advantage over their competitors and build trust with their users. Then, some others will follow along.

What do you think that could be done to make health data sharing that’s happening today more transparent?

About the author

John Lynn

John Lynn

John Lynn is the Founder of the, a network of leading Healthcare IT resources. The flagship blog, Healthcare IT Today, contains over 13,000 articles with over half of the articles written by John. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 20 million times.

John manages Healthcare IT Central, the leading career Health IT job board. He also organizes the first of its kind conference and community focused on healthcare marketing, Healthcare and IT Marketing Conference, and a healthcare IT conference,, focused on practical healthcare IT innovation. John is an advisor to multiple healthcare IT companies. John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can be found on Twitter: @techguy.