Canadians deserve a health care system that protects their data from misuse

By Dr. Rashaad Bhyat, Clinician Leader, Canada Health Infoway

During a typical day at the clinic, patients share personal and sensitive information on ailments, afflictions and family history. They put their trust in me to care for them.

This trust goes beyond just the patient-doctor relationship and includes caring for their personal health data, keeping this private information as secure as possible. This role of data stewardship is becoming more critical in the digital age, and fortunately, physician organizations such as the Canadian Medical Protective Association, the regulatory colleges, The College of Family Physicians Canada and others, all provide guidance.

With the appropriate safeguards in place, analyzing data stripped of your personal information can provide great benefits for enhancing patient care through research. This approach to quality improvement in health care is supported by influential health organizations across the country, along with universities, and national clinician organizations.

Doctors are doing their best to protect patient information within their own clinics. However, as information moves outside of the clinic environment, with prescriptions for example, this task becomes more complex. Thus, it is even more important for physicians and clinic managers to make careful choices about their technology partners and the data that they collect.

Data commercialization is defined as the process of selling customer or user data from one company to another. The information may include demographics, health information, and more, often collected from a large group of people.

This data is compiled and sold to commercial organizations, who use it to market their products to Canadians, through targeted advertising. In today’s digital world, we have witnessed businesses accumulating unique information about individuals from online profiles or quizzes. This data is commoditized and then sold on the open market.

What dangers might there be when personal health data is used for commercial intent? Consider this: an article published in the Washington Post discussed how a popular smart home speaker company recently filed a patent that would detect illness in the user by a change in their voice. If you’re coughing or have a raspy voice, it might target you with advertisements for cough syrup or chicken soup. Imagine what insights a commercial entity could glean from someone’s detailed personal health data, such as medication history.

As more physicians across the country use tools like electronic medical records and e-prescribing services, privacy legislation must keep pace in this rapidly changing environment.

As a medical professional, I believe that we should be aware of the emerging threat of the commercialization of personal health information.  No practicing physician wants to compromise their patients’ trust by allowing data from their prescriptions end up in the hands of advertisers, marketers, and others who may be looking to capitalize on private medication histories. Physicians can look to several online and digital resources such as the CFPC’s latest EMR Best Advice Guide, the CMPA’s Good Practices Guide, and others.

As we continue to modernize the Canadian health care system, we must do so in a way that prevents the digital mining of personal health data for commercial use.

We must look to health care organizations who are not motivated by profits and who see the security of personal health data as integral to their mission. Canada Health Infoway is one such organization, a not for profit committed to upholding the highest standards of security in the electronic transfer of patient health data.

As an example, Infoway’s recently launched electronic prescribing service, PrescribeIT, is built to eliminate the need for faxed and paper-based prescriptions and safeguards patient health data from commercial use. Available to health care professionals across the country, PrescribeIT protects patients’ prescription data and ensures they are never targeted with an ad, a promotion or loyalty points based on their private prescription history.

We are still in the infancy of the digital age of health care and like most new things in their beginning stages, there is room for improvement and some safety features to still be discovered. After all, the first automobile in existence – the Ford Model T – didn’t have seatbelts or airbags. Progress on these safety features and innovations came with time, and an industry’s focus on continuous improvement. In today’s digital health care space, innovation is an ongoing effort and together, we can ensure that all health care providers have the best digital tools to safeguard their patients’ information.

Dr. Rashaad Bhyat is a Clinical Leader in the Clinical Adoption group at Canada Health Infoway. He is a family physician with a special interest in Digital Health. He currently practices in an EMR-enabled family practice in the Greater Toronto Area. He’s on Twitter as @DrRBhyat.

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