Companies Are Using Big Data To Track Employee Health And Pregnancies

With the help of outside firms
San Luis Obispo County California

Companies are hiring outside firms to track data about employees’ medical claims and prescription drug use in order to monitor their health and pregnancies, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The ostensible goal of these firms is to reduce companies’ healthcare costs by providing employees with healthcare information and helping them make informed decisions. For example, Castlight Healthcare, which serves companies such as Walmart, can identify when employees may be considering costly spinal surgery and send them information about cheaper fixes or ways to delay the procedure but still help their condition, such as doing physical therapy.

But Castlight also has a program that attempts to predict when employees are pregnant or trying to conceive by monitoring their search queries and scanning their insurance claims to find workers who have stopped filling their birth-control prescriptions. A screenshot featured on Castlight’s website shows how the firm presents these results to employers, giving the number of workers who are “normal-risk pregnancy,” “high-risk pregnancy,” and “considering pregnancy.”

Castlight says that it does not share individual employee names with clients and only gives out employer’s numbers. Employees have to give permission in order for the firms to send them medical information through an app or email, but it’s not clear if they’re explicitly told how their data will be used, or if that information is buried in the fine print. Although Castlight responded to Popular Science‘s initial interview request, they have yet to set an interview up.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) protects confidentiality of personal healthcare information. But Janine Hiller, a law professor at Virginia Tech, notes in an interview with Popular Science, that if the firms only present employers with aggregated data and use sources such as search queries, the data they collect is no longer considered protected health information and is not covered by HIPAA.

Nicolas Terry, a law professor at Indiana University, told Salon that this is an area that remains somewhat unregulated. “There is almost no law that controls what data these big data companies can access. There isn’t much law controlling what they can do with it.”

So although giving this data to employers is legal, the implications of sharing sensitive medical information remain a concern.

“Health data can often be used in discriminatory ways,” says Hiller, who researchers the intersection of law, ethics, and technology. “There are good reasons for trying to encourage people’s healthy lives, but when you’re monitoring people’s behaviors and how they live, it just becomes more intimate.”