Big Brother is Hiring: Employers Gain Access to Staff Health Info Through Big Data Companies


Screen Shot 2016-02-17 at 1.20.20 PMThis passage from an article on the mining of employees’ healthcare-related (and shopping-related and credit-related and voting-related) data by big corporations released by The Wall Street Journal last night is really something:

Trying to stem rising health-care costs, some companies, including retailer Wal-Mart Stores Inc., are paying firms like Castlight Healthcare Inc. to collect and crunch employee data to identify, for example, which workers are at risk for diabetes, and target them with personalized messages nudging them toward a doctor or services such as weight-loss programs.

Yeah, the retail chain that has come under fire for its practice of hosting food drives for its own employees is among a group of companies looking to delve into those same people’s health records so they can be told to hit the gym.

The tech is so advanced that it even attempts to predict, based on data from company-affiliated insurers, whether an employee is considering a costly procedure like spinal surgery. Then, it sends that employee options for a second opinion. (“After finding that 30% of employees who got second opinions from top-rated medical centers ended up forgoing spinal surgery, Wal-Mart tapped Castlight to identify and communicate with workers suffering from back pain.”)

Even shopping history can be taken into account. Harry Greenspun, director of Deloitte LLP’s Center for Health Solutions, explained that big data companies can look at whether an individual is spending their money at a bike shop or a Gamestop and make reasonable conclusions about that person’s risks for certain diseases. He then went on to explain the merits of monitoring an employee’s credit scores, which could determine how likely they are to fill their prescriptions and stay healthy. There is also an apparent health-related benefit to keeping tabs on if someone votes in midterm elections.

Reactions to WSJ‘s report started pouring in immediately and no one seemed very thrilled:

Obviously, the fears held by employees are that the real intentions of companies utilizing big data are less compassionate than CEOs and human resource managers will let on. If the goals are more money-centric than genuinely wellness-centric, unhealthy employees with company health insurance plans or women who discontinue birth control in an effort to become pregnant might face termination.

As mentioned, employees receive messages from these data analyzers. This can be done through an app, which employees are prompted to install on their phones and make health-related searches through. One of the apps, Castlight, combines pregnancy-related searches with data on the last time a woman refilled her birth control as well as the ages of any pre-existing children she may have. Then, they start sending that woman information on Ob/Gyns in the area. It goes without saying that this topic is extremely sensitive and that an in-app message about fertility could land disastrously, depending on the employee’s personal history. To that end, Castlight “carefully test-markets” their messages to make sure that nothing appears “too intrusive.”

WSJ noted that employees often have the choice not to participate in these programs, but the practice is so new that few people even realize they exist.

Federal laws prohibit employers from directly accessing health data, but privacy experts are still worried that the involvement of data corporations could make it easier for that to happen, either accidentally or on purpose. Since privacy and healthcare data have already had a very contentious history of co-existing in the digital age, the startled reaction of WSJ readers comes as no surprise.

Welcome to the future, Mediaite readers! Enjoy your stay!

[image via screengrab]

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