When It Comes to Medical Data, Does Primacy Trump Privacy?

It should come as no surprise that leading technology companies are increasingly focused on vacuuming up as much money as possible from the enormous and ever-expanding healthcare sector.

The real question is just how much automation, intrusion and risk people will tolerate in exchange for meaningful and actionable data and, potentially, more efficient servicing of their medical needs.

Actually, maybe there’s no choice at all.

We all know consumer electronics, entertainment and services are huge markets, but the massive umbrella of healthcare-related products and services will explode in the next couple decades and companies like Amazon, Microsoft and Apple are licking their chops.

These companies have the resources, brand recognition and cash to dip their toes – or an entire leg – into just about any vertical they want. And they want.

Apple last quarter rolled out its Apple Watch Series 4, the latest iteration of perhaps the most well-known wearable device in the world. It now has an FDA-approved, built-in electrical heart sensor so users can take their own ECG to discover a possible irregular heart rhythm. You can also check your email and track your stock portfolio along with a billion other things.

According to IDC, Apple saw its wearable devices sales surge more than 50 percent compared to the third quarter last year as the sector as a whole increased sales by nearly 22 percent. Apple isn’t even the biggest player in this space (yet) as Xiaomi led the pack with a 91 percent year-over-year jump to more than 6.9 million units sold. Fitbit checked in third, followed by Huawei and Samsung.

Tracking how many steps you take in a day or monitoring your heart rate seem innocuous enough, but the coming onslaught of expansion into more granular and personal health information seems as risky as it does inevitable.

It’s a slippery slope.

Amazon recently announced new software that can scan digitized patient records, ostensibly for the purpose of helping doctors consider treatment options to cut costs. They also snapped up an online pharmacy to cover the back end of the healthcare transaction lifecycle.

Apple is working with the Department of Veteran Affairs to provide portable electronic health records to military veterans to “simplify” patients’ hospital visits by allowing them to transfer their health records to their iPhones. All this data, naturally, will be hosted and accessed from the cloud.

Microsoft’s Healthcare NExt initiative promises to revolutionize healthcare innovation by using artificial intelligence and cloud computing to give healthcare providers, biotech firms and research organizations the ability to access and analyze an ocean of patient data to “make intelligent health possible.”

The list goes on and on seemingly without end and will continue to expand for the foreseeable future.

Venture capital funding for digital health companies surged to $8.1 billion from $5.7 billion last year, according to San Francisco-based investment firm Rock Health.

As with any large-scale technology product, the vendors are always going to be looking for new and more creative (sometimes borderline illegal, if not immoral) ways to further maximize their profits by packaging this data and the accompanying services for sale to other sectors. If you think it’s bad that Facebook or Instagram target us with ads based on our social media and geolocation data, just imagine what will happen when your entire medical history is floating around out there and available to the highest bidder.

Healthcare data is highly coveted by hackers because it’s so lucrative.

According to the World Privacy Forum, the illicit profit from an average credit card theft is right around $2,000 per instance. It’s almost $20,000 for a single personal health information file.

The reason for this disparity is twofold. First, it often takes months or maybe even years for a healthcare data breach to be discovered, allowing hackers to extract much more valuable data over a longer period of time. Second, every medical record contains all kinds of goodies for thieves including Social Security numbers, dates of birth, addresses and phone numbers – information that can be exploited or sold to someone else for similar purposes.

Through the first three quarters of 2018, there were at least 229 reported data breaches affecting more than 6 million patients, according to HealthcareInfoSecurity.

Ninety-one of those breaches were characterized as hacking incidents affecting more than 4.3 million patients. Another 90 incidents were identified as unauthorized access or disclosure breaches while another 41 breaches were listed as theft or loss of data.

Maybe the bigger question we should be asking is whether convenience, improved data analytics and, perhaps, better care is worth allowing these massive companies to become even more intertwined in our lives than they already are.

Have we all collectively just ceded any notion of individual privacy – from our cholesterol count to our hormone levels – to make our lives simpler? Hardly a week goes by without some data breach – including those of the cloud-hosted variety. We’ve become conditioned and numbed to the gravity and frequency of this abuse of trust.

Remember, you can change a password or get a new credit card number after a breach, but your prescription drug history or hospitalization for mental health treatment or treatment for a disease, to name just a few examples, could be exposed and monetized forever.

is president and senior analyst for BPO Media, which publishes The Imaging Channel and Workflow magazines. As a market analyst and industry consultant, Ames has worked for prominent consulting firms including KPMG and has more than 15 years experience in the imaging industry covering technology and business sectors. Ames has lived and worked in the United States, Southeast Asia and Europe and enjoys being a part of a global industry and community.