The integration of information technology and medical science is innovating the way we look at modern healthcare. Health informatics and the centralizing of patient databases globally are proving to be enormous assets in helping doctors save lives around the world. But this exposure of private information to the perforated border between privileged and public access of the internet age is not without its risks.
No, I’m not talking about evil hospitals selling your genes to an Iranian research lab over the web. I’m talking about social networking. What are the potential privacy problems that arise from health professionals and others with your privileged medical information (and that’s certainly not just medical professionals) discussing or exhibiting in some way your private health information? Do these problems already exist?
A study done by the University of Florida’s Department of Pediatrics recently looked into it. They rounded up nearly half of the available Facebook profiles of the university’s medical students and residents and scanned them for privileged information in the form of posts, profile information, photographic depictions of patient care, and patient data visible in photographs. The study concluded that while only 1% of profiles scanned had revealed potential violations of medical privacy laws, the occurrence measured in time increased rapidly, from one in 2007 to 11 in 2009. A facet of note: all patients whose medical privacies were potentially violated were in foreign countries; the medical students and residents were on medical missions.
What this says to is that medical students figured it didn’t matter much showing a kid in Venezuela getting his tonsils taken out on Facebook to his friends, an innocent albeit foolish mistake on the part of an aspiring medical professional. This case doesn’t demonstrate vindictive revelations of medical privacy on the part of healthcare professionals operating on social networks. Instead it shows the tendency for us to disintegrate ethical considerations based on distance and digitalization. Consider then, when your future clinical technician will be operating on another continent while you sit with your doctor waiting for the results, what the difference would be between your situation and that of the Venezuelan boy.
The increase in violations over the years is obvious when you consider the explosion of social networking, and this only demonstrates the potential for massive amounts of violations to occur as more and more people socialize digitally. Unregulated and more importantly undeletable pieces of your medical history could make their way onto the internet and into the hands of people who would otherwise, or will, pay a price for it.
Consider too that this may happen within a network of individuals who have no connection to the health industry whatsoever. Your credit card and personal finance information is always at risk for being stolen; won’t the same be true for your medical history once there’s a way to monetize it? If you took a photograph of yourself in your bathroom and put it on Facebook there could’ve been a pill bottle in the background with enough information to access further details about your health.
Who would buy this information? In a future where all employers insure their workers, there might be an incentive to get information on a potential employee’s medical history to judge whether there are any risks for higher premiums. Insurance companies themselves may seek out this kind of information. Would what they do be illegal if all they’re doing is browsing Facebook?
We may live in a future where your medical information and history is as prized as your bank account. This kind of incentive could drive an underworld market for private medical knowledge reaped from the web as frighteningly fast as our current identity thieves perform. Consider this before you make any mention of your or a loved ones health information on social networking sites.
Today’s hospitals are already exercising enormous care to ensure their information and the ways in which their digital distribution saves lives are protected from outsiders. The health industry, you have to remember, is one of pioneers and they’ve seen the problems I’ve addressed for years now. You won’t have to worry much about the hospital’s network as much as you should worry about the social network. After all Facebook was designed to reveal personal information, not protect it. Protect it yourself.
This is a guest post