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Tech giants still need to convince wary Americans to share health data

Anjalee Khemlani
Senior Reporter

Google (GOOGGOOGL) may have suffered a public backlash, and invited federal scrutiny, after reports it had access to identifiable patient data, but how the incident affects the company’s future trustworthiness remains to be seen.

The outcry came last month after reports Google was working with one of the country’s largest health systems, Ascension, to use data to help predict better diagnoses and care strategies.

It signaled the first known time a big tech company had access to patient information that was not de-identified — a common practice in the health tech world. But big tech companies like Apple (AAPL), Microsoft (MSFT) and others have been working with providers around the country through cloud services, which provides a similar level of patient data access.

Woman stretching on a trail with a fitness tracker. Source: Getty

This signals a growth of big tech into the health tech space. But a recent survey shows that the vast majority of consumers are wary of sharing their health data with tech giants as they face increasing fallout over data breaches and other privacy concerns.

This is not just a Google problem

survey of 4,000 U.S. adults conducted over the summer from the digital venture fund Rock Health found that just 10% of consumers were willing to share their health data with a tech company.

Among that 10%, just over half said they were willing to share their data with Google in particular. The study was conducted prior to the Google-Ascension backlash, and it remains to be seen if that changes next year.

But the study provides some interesting insight into trends in the past two years.

Of the entities or people that consumers are willing to share their health data with, physicians rank at the top, at more than 70%, followed by insurance companies and pharmacies, according to the report.

But in order for physicians to have access, it requires the use of a data platform. Often doctors are using smaller companies or work through partners to afford the technology needed to have an electronic record. Large hospital systems have all, despite numerous complaints of clunkiness, chosen from the two leaders: Epic and Cerner.

Megan Zweig, director of research and marketing at Rock Health, said it’s not just a Google problem, because over the past few years, the willingness to share data has reduced among the 4,000 respondents Rock Health asks.

In 2017, 86% were willing to share data with physicians, compared to 72% willing to share in 2019. And last year, 11% of consumers were willing to share data with tech companies compared to 10% this year.

“We’ve seen across the board the willingness to share information has decreased,” she said.

“We can’t necessarily tie these results to a single event, but I think you can surmise that given some of the data breaches, and just the public conversation about what is happening to our data in this digital age, is going to affect how protective people are of their data.”

An uphill battle for Big Tech

While it’s hard to tell if this will change the behavior and the approach of big tech, or from health tech companies overall, Rock Health does see its portfolio of companies appear more sensitive to the consumer feedback, and are aware that their approach to security and privacy could affect their ability to raise capital in the future.

“We hear from our portfolio companies that there’s a big difference between just being a health care app that’s in the Apple Store versus being a digital health solution that’s been validated whether through clinical trials, whether it’s going through the FDA approval process, whether it’s through validating data security in the interest of working health systems,” Zweig said.

In fact, as consumers become more aware of the levels at which their health data is being shared, it is likely to shift the burden on the tech world to be more transparent about their relationships and how they are interacting with and using data.

“It’s in part incumbent on entrepreneurs, as well as leaders of bigger health care companies that are getting into this space…to educate the users on their product, about the safeguards that are in place, and about what data is being collected and how its used,” Zweig said.

“We need that in order to build back up the trust that I think we’ve seen lost in the past couple of years.”

Anjalee Khemlani is a reporter at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter: @AnjKhem

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