Pharmacy Chains Offer Discounts In Exchange For Your Personal Health Data

You should probably pay the few extra bucks to keep your data safe

A Walgreens app from CES in 2011.

Tech Cocktail via Flickr, CC by SA 2.0

Apps and gadgets have made many of us obsessed with quantifying our health. And while there's good reason to keep that information away from prying corporate eyes, pharmacies are finding new ways to incentivize customers to share that valuable data. This month, Walgreens has become the latest pharmacy chain to launch an app that gives customers small discounts in exchange for access to their digital health trackers (CVS has a similar program). And while this might be tempting especially for low-income patients, the information these companies are asking for is far too valuable to share for just a couple of dollars off, as Stat reports today.

When a patient downloads and agrees to the terms and conditions in one of these apps, she gives the pharmacy access to certain information, such as her weight tracker, pedometer, or sugar tracker (for diabetics). But she is also waiving the privacy protection afforded by HIPAA. That gives the pharmacy free reign to track and market specific products to these patients, pushing coupons for nearby locations or advertising medications based on a patient's specific conditions, often via text message.

There are some benefits to doing this. Pharmacies purport that sharing this information will help ensure that patients are taking the correct amount of medication over the right period of time. But, as Stat notes, the pros outweigh the cons. As with many apps that track sensitive healthcare information, such as Apple's ResearchKit, data that is supposed to go to just one place may end up being disseminated much more widely to employers or insurance providers, though Walgreens says it doesn't sell identifiable information to third parties. Or the healthcare data could even be stolen and would sell for lots of money on the black market.

Even so, you may choose to download the new Walgreens app to save a buck. But you should know where that kind of data might end up—and that you might save more by selling your own healthcare info on the black market.