Insurance Companies May Be Mining Data on Your Health & Spending Habits

Employers are getting insurance providers and analytics companies involved to help predict employees’ health needs.

By Rhonda FanningFebruary 18, 2016 1:48 pm, ,

When you were a kid, your parents probably watched over you to make sure you were eating right, getting enough sleep, taking any needed medication, monitoring a fever or runny nose. Parents do it because they’re your parents and want you to be healthy. But what if your boss wanted to do something similar?

It’s a growing trend that has wellness firms and insurance companies working with employers to mine personal data to anticipate health needs. Companies say the goal is to improve the health of their staff, but privacy advocates think the practices might go too far.

Reporter Rachel Emma Silverman, with the Wall Street Journal, says the practice is already prevalent and a quickly growing field. Insurance providers and specialized healthcare analytics firms gather wellness information from employees. It’s not just information on office visits and pharmaceuticals – they tap into shopping trends and other lifestyle factors, too.

“For a long time now, consumer companies like your credit card companies and marketers and advertisers have been collecting a whole bunch of consumer data about individuals,” Silverman says. “They sell this data to other vendors, and what healthcare firms are starting to find is that this consumer data can be very predictive of people’s health status.”

She says that many employees may not be aware that this data mining is going on, and there’s no way to prevent it from happening. Employees can, however, opt out of receiving messages about their health.

“In many cases, employees really have no idea that their information is being analyzed, and in many cases they don’t really have a choice,” Silverman says. “By signing up with an insurer, that’s sort of part and parcel of being a customer of a health insurer.”

Gathering data has raised eyebrows among privacy advocates. But Silverman says that the healthcare firms she spoke with assured that there were privacy procedures in place.

“There are fears is that this data could be leaked to an employer inadvertently or through a hack or data breach,” she says, “or that an employer who really just doesn’t understand HIPAA could somehow get a hold of this very detailed personal health information.”