Do you wear an activity tracker? Use an app that records your daily steps taken and calories consumed? Post online ratings of your physician's performance, or share information about a medical condition in an online support group?
If so, you're part of a growing trend, one that pulls together large amounts of anonymous (or "de-identified") health data. Even if you don't actively use online tools or health apps, your health information—extracted from medical bills, electronic health records, apps, devices, and even your social-media interactions—may be harvested and analyzed, or "mined."
This practice can improve health care, your own and everyone else's. All that raw data, when analyzed, can help reveal which treatments work best, allow doctors and health systems to better manage your care, and unveil treatments that aren't working or could be harming people.
In one recent example of how data-mining can be helpful, researchers at Stanford University and the Houston Methodist Research Institute examined more than 16 million electronic records of 2.9 million people to probe the link between a common class of drugs used to treat gastroesophageal reflux disease (proton pump inhibitors such as Nexium, Prilosec, and Prevacid) and heart attack. They found that people taking those drugs were about 16 percent more likely to have a heart attack than those who did not use these drugs. The study doesn't prove that the drugs are causing heart attacks or adding to the risk of one. But because it involved so many people, the findings are certain to trigger a close examination of a possible cause-and-effect link.
But as the volume of digital medical information and the sheer number of health databases continues expanding, it's becoming clearer that there are significant risks in data collection, too. Electronically stored medical data has become a lucrative target for hackers bent on identity theft and fraud. From October 2009 though April 2015, health-care organizations and their business partners have reported 1,199 large-scale data breaches, each affecting at least 500 people. And so far, 2015 has already seen two huge breaches of health-related personal information involving the insurance companies Anthem and Premera Blue Cross.
Why would hackers be interested in health information? Some criminals use the personal information of Medicare beneficiaries, for example, to submit fake bills to the government. Hackers may also use Medicare and private insurance identity numbers to impersonate insured people and illegally access medical services or obtain prescription drugs.
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