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Health care data: Benefits and risks

Written by Steve Findlay

If you use a Fitbit or share your medical information in an online support group, you’re part of a growing trend in health care.

It’s the health data movement, an offshoot of the “big data” revolution that’s changing the way many industries do business—driven by powerful software tools that analyze mountains of information.

In health care, data from medical bills, electronic health records (EHRs), e-devices, and Internet and social-media interactions is now being mined to uncover meaningful trends and patterns, including which treatments work best.

That’s a good thing because it helps clinicians improve not only the care they deliver but also the way the health system works.

But there are risks. With so many billions of bytes of data sloshing around today’s electronic systems and digital devices, some of it is bound to end up being used in ways that could compromise your privacy and/or lead to identity theft and fraud.

From 2009 through 2014 health-care businesses reported more than 1,100 breaches affecting the medical records of an estimated 41 million people, according to ProPublica. And three large-scale breaches of personal information involving health insurance companies—Anthem in several states, Premera Blue Cross in Washington State and CareFirst in the Washington DC area—have occurred in 2015.

To help you understand the benefits and risks of health data use, Consumer Reports has produced a 16-page guide, available free. Produced with support from Atlantic Philanthropies and in collaboration with AcademyHealth, a Washington, D.C -based non-profit that promotes health services research, the guide has profiles of cutting edge health data initiatives, including several that involve consumers contributing their data and participating in research projects. The guide also has tips on how you can participate in the health data movement even as you protect your medical information and privacy.

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