Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Debate Over ‘Re-Identification’ Of Health Information: What Do We Risk?

Barth-Jones, Daniel. "The Debate Over ‘Re-Identification’ Of Health Information: What Do We Risk?" Health Affairs, August 10, 2012.

From the article: "Because a vast array of healthcare improvements and medical research critically depend on de-identified health information, the essential public policy challenge then is to accurately assess the current state of privacy protections for de-identified data, and properly balance both risks and benefits to maximum effect…Considerable costs come with incorrectly evaluating the true risks of re-identification under current HIPAA protections. It is essential to understand that de-identification comes at a cost to the scientific accuracy and quality of the healthcare decisions that will be made based on research using de-identified data. Balancing disclosure risks and statistical accuracy is crucial because some popular de-identification methods, such as “k-anonymity methods,” can unnecessarily, and often undetectably, degrade the accuracy of de-identified data for multivariate statistical analyses. This problem is well understood by statisticians and computer scientists, but not well-appreciated in the public policy arena. Poorly conducted de-identification and the overuse of de-identification methods in cases where they do not produce real privacy protections can quickly lead to “bad science” and damaging policy decisions.

Even worse, if we abandon the use of de-identified data because we falsely believe that de-identification cannot provide valuable privacy protections, we will lose the rich benefits that come from analysis of de-identified health data." Read more