Mar 12, 2021 - Technology

Sen. Bill Cassidy: Congress should balance privacy and medical data

Axios Health Care Editor Sam Baker in conversation with Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy.
Photo: Axios

Congress is considering legislation that would make data gathered from people's smart gadgets, such as watches, be treated as private health information, yet still be used for medical research, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) told Axios on Friday in a virtual event.

Why it matters: Data from smart devices can be instrumental in achieving medical advances but also pose privacy concerns. Cassidy noted that health insurers could use unregulated information from such gadgets to deny coverage to a person whose data indicates they may have a medical condition.

What they're saying: Cassidy said data gathered about people's internet searches, or even the number of bathroom trips they take during the night, could be used to infer a medical condition.

  • "An insurance company would say, 'That's expensive. We're going to have to pay for medications, or surgery, or something. We're not sure we want to insure that person,'" he explained.
  • "We have legislation that would require the information gathered from smartwatches to be treated as if it were protected health information. Certainly not to be used without your permission on anything that would otherwise underwrite your eligibility" for a product.
  • "There is a tension not just between somebody's private profit at the expense of my privacy, but the tension between medical advances in which my privacy needs to be guarded. But we need the use of this aggregate big data in order to achieve the medical advances."

What to watch: Cassidy proposed that a way to balance these concerns could be the creation of a "data lake," which would allow large amounts of data to be aggregated for research purposes while keeping people's individual identities private.

  • "It's anonymized, you can extract a data set from the lake, but it cannot be re-identified. In that case, we resolve the tension," he said.

Watch the event.

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