The nation’s second largest hospital system has forwarded their patients’ health data to Google, according to the New York Times article found here.

Google is not being paid to house the data, however, they are running analytics to develop Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms.  We can expect that their work will be leveraged when Google acquires FitBit (11-1-2019), the maker of wearable devices that track the number of steps we take each day, our pulse and sleep patterns.

Patients were not notified in advance.  This raises some concerns around HIPAA, the federal law protecting health data.  The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 prohibited organizations from selling data to third parties who could then target patients for advertising.   HIPAA does allow data may be shared so long as the information is used for Payment, Treatment, or Health Care Operations.  Operations includes a when a company reviews patient data to help improve benefit plan.  For example, reviewing claims to understand if the Emergency Department visits are in fact, emergencies.

This exemption allows Plan Sponsors, Employers and Unions, to make informed decisions based on the facts about their plan usage, not just on what the insurance company tells them.  Because of HIPAA, employers can demand their data, so long as it is protected from misuse, from the insurer or claims payer.

Employers that don’t review their company HIPAA protected data are probably leaving money on the table; funds that could benefit their employees.  A well-designed health plan is often customized to each employer’s needs.  At Stirling Benefits, we customize plans down to 25 employees on the plan.  We may ask: do employees suffer from more than usual low back pain?  How many employees do not have a primary care provider?   When we review the data, we can fix these issues.  In the first instance, extra benefits can be added for PT, exercise programs and yes, even therapeutic yoga (works for middle aged truck drivers).  In the second instance, the plan can add a $20 copayment for Health Clinics that focus on primary care.   These measures address real concerns and reduce plan costs over time.  Without good data, the Plan sponsor would not know how to improve their benefits while reducing costs.

The Google data analysis is part of an ongoing trend to use data to more effectively (read cost effectively) to treat our covered members.  Being aware of what HIPAA does and does not allow will allow informed employers to make informed decisions.

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