Don’t Eat That Doughnut: Your Doctor Is Watching
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The Fiscal Times
July 3, 2014

Hospitals are now getting in on the game of big data collection by monitoring their patients’ consumer information—like credit card purchases at fast food joints—to identify people with health risks before they walk in the door.

And you thought the NSA was a problem.

The largest hospital network operating in North and South Carolina, Carolinas HealthCare System, is gathering data on 2 million people to throw into predictive algorithms designed to flag high-risk patients, Bloomberg’s Businessweek first reported.

Related: Medicare Opens New Door to Big Data

Things that might set off warnings include canceling gym memberships, frequent trips to ice cream parlors and transactions at plus-size clothing stories.

“Information on consumer spending can provide a more complete picture than the glimpse doctors get during an office visit or through lab results,” Michael Dulin, chief clinical officer for analytics and outcomes research at Carolinas HealthCare, told Businessweek.

Though the hospital system just began collecting this information, it hopes to begin regularly distributing patients’ health scores (based on the data) to doctors and nurses so they can reach out to the patients before they become sick.

The systems can also calculate the probability of someone having a heart attack—all by examining the kinds of food patients are buying and activities they are (or are not) participating in.

“The idea is to use big data and predictive models to think about population health and drill down to the individual levels,” Dulin said.

There are limits, however, to what the health care system can legally disclose to doctors and nurses, including an individual’s specific transactions.

Still, privacy advocates have voiced concerns over the use of such data.

“This is an invasion of privacy,” Yahoo’s Lauren Lyster said on the Daily Ticker. “What if I’m a smoker and this compromises my care? What if they judge my habits?”

There are also concerns that if insurance companies and even employers have access to the information, consumers may be penalized financially or even lose their jobs.

Others say data brokers like LexisNexis are already gathering this information for marketers to sell things to the public, so why not use it to try to help people.

What we are looking to find are people before they end up in trouble,” Dulin said.

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Washington Correspondent Brianna Ehley, based in D.C., covers Congress, government agencies and spending issues, health care, and tax and economic policy for The Fiscal Times.