More on Google, Cleveland Clinic and the privacy zealots, by Matthew Holt

So Modern Healthcare‘s Joseph Conn has a whole page to write about the Cleveland Clinic and he writes just about HIPAA and the fact that this pilot is not going to be covered by it. Victoria Colliver in the SF Chron writes about not a lot more, but at least she has someone () stating the bleedingly bloody obvious—

“If it’s made convenient enough and easy enough, people will be no more concerned about privacy with these systems than they are with their financial information,” he said. “Far more people die because health information is not released or difficult to get … than anybody’s ever been harmed because the information has been inadvertently released.”

OK so it was me she quoted, but someone needs to give Deborah Peel and whoever the hell the World Privacy Forum is a big shake. I say this as a card-carrying member of the ACLU and Amnesty International who is deeply concerned about anyone’s private information and what use is made of it.

And the shake is, if a government overhears your private information illegally (or quasi-legally) it can use that information to take away your freedom and worse. So the standard for their ability to access that information should be an awful lot higher than it is in virtually every country—including this one.

If a private corporation unwittingly lets slip your private health data, or even uses some aspect of it knowingly to target you for marketing, the chances of you suffering much from it are very, very low.

These are vastly different things, and conflating the two does not help in the least.

Furthermore, the potential for improvements in health outcomes and efficiency from the type of things Google Health, Microsoft and everyone else working in this business are trying to do vastly exceed any possible risks associated with this disclosure. The kind of language used by the privacy zealots besmirches the honor of the people at Google, Cleveland Clinic and many other places working very hard to fix these problems.

Furthermore the potential for harm from inadvertent disclosure would be even less if we had sensible insurance reform that prevented discrimination against people with certain health conditions. Of course that discrimination exists right now every day in America. It causes far, far more pain than any potential privacy violation. And I have not seen Deborah Peel in the paper complaining about it.

For that matter while Peel’s complaining about Google, and lots of other HIT vendors—without any good reason or evidence—she’s been publicly praising Microsoft without acknowledging any of the accusations Fred Trotter and others have been making about her basic technical understanding of Healthvault. Perhaps its about time she came clean on the economics of that relationship.

CODA: For the record—other than one or two employees of Google and Microsoft attending the Health 2.0 Conference in which I am a partner, and my doing a small amount of consulting with a contractor who was working for Microsoft in 2006, I have no financial relationship with any of these companies. Not that it would change what I thought.

Matthew Holt

  • http://qvisory.org/blog/tag/Health Billy

    Thanks for sharing your opinion Matthew.
    I think it all boils down to the fact that the medical records are not covered by HIPAA. Understandably, that has consumers worried. What do you think Google's angle is in all of this? Surely they're out to make a buck. Do you think they plan on scanning medical records to target advertising?

  • Paul

    It's refreshing to see a rational side to the Google-Clinic experiment that has been largely drowned out by the paranoid privacy people: the possibility of greater patient outcomes and administrative efficiency. And the point about the larger problem of insurance companies denying people with pre-existing conditions is also spot-on. I'd also like to add that there are already tons of websites talked about on this blog that consist largely of named patients sharing their symptoms and conditions with each other and in some cases, a larger public. So the idea of patients transferring records over to Google is hardly revolutionary in that light, especially when you also consider how much information people already willingly surrender to Google every time they google something, use Gmail, click "AutoFill" on the Google toolbar, or word-process in Google Docs, to name a few.