As companies get more involved in their employees' wellness, are they getting uncomfortably close to crossing the line when it comes to workers’ privacy? In an effort to contain healthcare costs, some large companies are partnering with employee wellness firms and insurers to gather information on their employees' prescriptions and treatments, where they shop, their credit scores, and even if they vote in midterm elections.
It’s not as crazy as it all sounds. Harry Greenspun, director of Deloitte LLP’s Center for Health Solutions, told the Wall Street Journal that, for example, a bike shop customer is more likely to be in good shape than a video game buyer, and that, “I bet I could better predict your risk of a heart attack by where you shop and where you eat than by your genome.” People with low credit scores are less likely to fill prescriptions or be readmitted to a hospital because they can’t afford to, and one company doing this kind of data mining, Welltok Inc., found that people who vote in midterm elections tend to be healthier.
Castlight Health uses benefit claims to see what’s going on with an employees’ health. They can know, for example, whether someone’s using — or has stopped using — birth control or is taking fertility treatments, and send her a personal email recommending prenatal care or an obstetrician. In fact, women have been among the first to raise alarms about privacy issues with this kind of thing.
Remember how SCOTUS said HobbyLobby didn't have to pay for employees' birth control?
To save money on out-of-network costs, JPMorgan Chase & Co. asked Cigna to analyze employee claims to identify those without primary care doctors and send them recommendations for in-network physicians.
And having learned that patients who get second opinions are less likely to go for expensive spinal surgery, Walmart asked Castlight to identify prospective surgery candidates based on claims made for physical therapy, back imaging, or back pain and make sure they got information that might help them decide against surgery, such as second opinions and different physical therapies.
There are only a few scattered reports so far of companies abusing this kind of data, and there are significant privacy safeguards in place, generally including the ability to opt out. Still, it’s strange to be essentially spied on, and a real concern that we could be heading down a slippery slope to a world in which there’s little, if any, privacy at all.