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Hospitals spy on patient purchases to spot bad habits

Published time: June 26, 2014 18:06
AFP Photo / Getty Images / Justin Sullivan

AFP Photo / Getty Images / Justin Sullivan

Americans regularly purchasing unhealthy food or failing to kick their smoking habit could soon find themselves entertaining phone calls and spontaneous check-ins from their doctors.

According to a Bloomberg News report, hospitals in various states are beginning to use consumer information mined through data brokers in order to fill out more complete profiles of their patients. By tabulating these statistics and projecting which individuals are at risk of falling ill the most, medical professionals are hoping to correct potential problems before they get worse.

The process is already underway in at least two major hospital chains, one in Pennsylvania and the other across both North and South Carolina.

At the Carolinas Healthcare System – comprised of more than 900 hospitals, nursing homes, surgical centers, and more – officials are employing information such as where a person shops, the kind of food they buy, and whether or not they smoke to craft profiles for roughly 2 million people.

The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and its 20-plus facilities, meanwhile, is also using household information to learn more about more than 2 million patients.

“What we are looking to find are people before they end up in trouble,” said Carolinas’ director of research Michael Dulin to Bloomberg. “The idea is to use big data and predictive models to think about population health and drill down to the individual levels to find someone running into trouble that we can reach out to and try to help out.”

Large data brokers like LexisNexis and Acxiom are already known to be collecting numerous pieces of information regarding American customers alongside their spending and lifestyle habits. As RT reported previously, a Senate survey found data brokers are gathering up to 75,000 data points on each individual consumer they track within the United States. This information can be simple – like your favorite sports team – but it can also include much more than that, and it can be sold for profit to other companies.

Some legislators, like Senate Commerce Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), have proposed bills that would place restrictions on data brokers, but the chances of those passing are slim at this point.

The increased interest from hospitals, meanwhile, comes in the wake of the Affordable Care Act’s implementation. Since the law does not allow insurance companies to deny coverage based on preexisting conditions – and it opts to reward medical institutions for quality of care rather than quantity – hospitals are looking for ways to prevent patients from heading to emergency rooms, which could become costly.

As noted by Bloomberg, the US government is also fining hospitals that readmit too many patients per month and “rewarding hospitals that do well on a benchmark of clinical outcomes and patient surveys.” As a result, it’s more beneficial now than it was before for hospitals to ensure their patients don’t end up in the emergency room.

Although hospitals can reveal an individual’s risk assessment to a doctor, they are not permitted to reveal particular details about it. Still, the fact that these institutions are gathering large amounts of data on individuals has many concerned over their privacy.

“It is one thing to have a number I can call if I have a problem or question, it is another thing to get unsolicited phone calls. I don’t like that,” Jorjanne Murry, a North Carolina resident who has Type 1 diabetes, told Bloomberg. “I think it is intrusive.”

As a safeguard against some of these concerns, Dulin said that at Carolinas Healthcare System, there will be an option for patients to opt-out of the process and ensure their info remains private. He argued that this information is currently being sold to people much less interested in a person’s well being than hospitals, presumably a reference to marketers and other commercial companies,.

“The data is already used to market to people to get them to do things that might not always be in the best interest of the consumer," he said. “We are looking to apply this for something good.”