Healthcare Consent and its Discontents (Part 2 of 3)

The previous section of this article laid out what is wrong with informed consent today. We’ll continue now to look at possible remedies.

Could we benefit from more opportunities for consent?

Donna Gitter said that the Common Rule governing research might be updated to cover de-identified data as well as personally identifiable information. The impact of this on research, of course, would be incalculable. But it might lead to more participation in research, because 72% of patients say they would like to be asked for permission before their data is shared even in de-identified form. Many researchers, such as conference speaker Liza Dawson, would rather give researchers the right to share de-identified data without consent, but put protections in place.

To link multiple data sets, according to speaker Barbara Evans, we need an iron-clad method of ensuring that the data for a single individual is accurately linked. This requirement butts up against the American reluctance to assign a single ID to a patient. The reluctance is well-founded, because tracking individuals throughout their lives can lead to all kinds of seamy abuses.

One solution would be to give each individual control over a repository where all of her data would go. That solution implies that the individual would also control each release of the data. A lot of data sets could easily vanish from the world of research, as individuals die and successors lose interest in their data. We must also remember that public health requires the collection of certain types of data even if consent is not given.

Another popular reform envisioned by health care technologists, mentioned by Evans, is a market for health information. This scenario is part of a larger movement known as Vendor Relationship Management, which I covered several years ago. There is no doubt that individuals generate thousands of dollars worth of information, in health care records and elsewhere. Speaker Margaret Foster Riley claimed that the data collected from your loyalty card by the grocer is worth more than the money you spend there.

So researchers could offer incentives to share information instead of informed consent. Individuals would probably hire brokers to check that the requested uses conform to the individuals’ ethics, and that the price offered is fair.

Giving individuals control and haggling over data makes it harder, unfortunately, for researchers to assemble useful databases. First of all, modern statistical techniques (which fish for correlations) need huge data sets. Even more troubling is that partial data sets are likely to be skewed demographically. Perhaps only people who need some extra cash will contribute their data. Or perhaps only highly-educated people. Someone can get left out.

These problems exist even today, because our clinical trials and insurance records are skewed by income, race, age, and gender. Theoretically, it could get even worse if we eliminate the waiver that lets researchers release de-identified data without patient consent. Disparities in data sets and research were heavily covered at the Petrie-Flom conference, as I discuss in a companion article.

Privacy, discrimination, and other legal regimes

Several speakers pointed out that informed consent loses much of its significance when multiple data sets can be combined. The mosaic effect adds another layer of uncertainty about what will happen to data and what people are consenting to when they release it.

Nicolas Terry pointed out that American law tends to address privacy on a sector-by-sector basis, having one law for health records, another for student records, and so forth. He seemed to indicate that the European data protection regime, which is comprehensive, would be more appropriate nowadays where the boundary between health data and other forms of data is getting blurred. Sharona Hoffman said that employers and insurers can judge applicants’ health on the basis of such unexpected data sources as purchases at bicycle stores, voting records (healthy people have more energy to get involved in politics), and credit scores.

Mobile apps notoriously bring new leaks to personal data. Mobile operating systems fastidiously divide up access rights and require apps to request these rights during installation, but most of us just click Accept for everything, including things the apps have no right to need, such as our contacts and calendar. After all, there’s no way to deny an app one specific access right while still installing it.

And lots of these apps abuse their access to data. So we remain in a contradictory situation where certain types of data (such as data entered by doctors into records) are strongly protected, and other types that are at least as sensitive lack minimal protections. Although the app developers are free to collect and sell our information, they often promise to aggregate and de-identify it, putting them at the same level as traditional researchers. But no one requires the app developers to be complete and accurate.

To make employers and insurers pause before seeking out personal information, Hoffman suggested requiring that data brokers, and those who purchase their data, to publish the rules and techniques they employ to make use of the data. She pointed to the precedent of medical tests for employment and insurance coverage, where such disclosure is necessary. But I’m sure this proposal would be fought so heavily, by those who currently carry out their data spelunking under cover of darkness, that we’d never get it into law unless some overwhelming scandal prompted extreme action. Adrian Gropper called for regulations requiring transparency in every use of health data, and for the use of open source algorithms.

Several speakers pointed out that privacy laws, which tend to cover the distribution of data, can be supplemented by laws regarding the use of data, such as anti-discrimination and consumer protection laws. For instance, Hoffman suggested extending the Americans with Disabilities Act to cover people with heightened risk of suffering from a disability in the future. The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) of 2008 offers a precedent. Universal health insurance coverage won’t solve the problem, Hoffman said, because businesses may still fear the lost work time and need for workplace accommodations that spring from health problems.

Many researchers are not sure whether their use of big data–such as “data exhaust” generated by people in everyday activities–would be permitted under the Common Rule. In a particularly wonky presentation (even for this conference) Laura Odwazny suggested that the Common Rule could permit the use of data exhaust because the risks it presents are no greater than “daily life risks,” which are the keystone for applying the Common Rule.

The final section of this article will look toward emerging risks that we are just beginning to understand.

About the author

Andy Oram

Andy Oram

Andy Oram writes and edits documents about many aspects of computing, ranging in size from blog postings to full-length books. Topics cover a wide range of computer technologies: data science and machine learning, programming languages, Web performance, Internet of Things, databases, free and open source software, and more. My editorial output at O'Reilly Media included the first books ever published commercially in the United States on Linux, the 2001 title Peer-to-Peer (frequently cited in connection with those technologies), and the 2007 title Beautiful Code. He is a regular correspondent on health IT and health policy for He also contributes to other publications about policy issues related to the Internet and about trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business.