So how close are we getting to giving up our rights and privacy?
Maybe closer than we want to admit?
Recently, Amazon announced it has opened a new health care frontier: Now Alexa can be used to transmit patient data. Using this new feature — which Amazon labeled as a “skill” — a company named Livongo will allow diabetes patients — which it calls “members” — to use the device to “query their last blood sugar reading, blood sugar measurement trends, and receive insights and Health Nudges that are personalized to them.”
Private equity and venture capital firms are in love with a legion of companies and startups touting the benefits of virtual doctors’ visits and telemedicine to revolutionize health care, investing almost $10 billion in 2018, a record for the sector. A startup called Kinetxx will provide patients with virtual physical therapy, along with messaging and exercise logging — without stepping into a gym or a clinic. And according to published reports, Maven Clinic (which is not actually a physical place) offers online medical guidance and personal advice focusing on women’s health needs.
In April, at Fortune’s Brainstorm Health conference, Bruce Broussard, CEO of health insurer Humana, told the audience he believes technology will help patients receive help during medical crises, citing the benefits of home monitoring and the ability of doctors’ visits to be conducted by video conference.
(For those of us who rely on WebMD, this might seem like a good option. But consider how much information would have to be shared for there to be any accuracy.)
The technological shift is drawing critics and rightly so.
Virtual communications may streamline life, but service requires intuition.
We still need to sit with people and have a conversation. And while we don’t want to be overcharged, or have our time wasted, we should not be so eager to embrace digital innovation. We should not, by any stretch of the imagination, put all faith into something that actually has no hands.
As some pundits have noted, it remains an open question whether virtual medicine will prove a valuable, convenient adjunct to health care. Or, instead, will it be a way for the U.S. profit-driven health care system to make even more money by outsourcing core duties while providing a paler version of actual medical treatment?
Science fiction — like Star Trek, for example — makes progress with an emphasis on technology seem easily integrated and very simple. Yet people still play critical roles.
Some argue that digital health tools have tremendous potential: A neurologist can view a patient by video to see if lopsided facial movements suggest a stroke. A patient with an irregular heart rhythm could send in digital tracings to see if a new prescription drug is working. But the tangible benefit of many other virtual services offered is less certain.
We argue that if virtual medicine is pursued in the name of efficiency — or just profit — it has enormous potential to make health care worse.
And then there are the privacy issues.
Many laws already regulate the privacy of medical information. Although they offer some protection, on the whole, they operate more for the benefit of ensuring the flow of information throughout the health care industry than ensuring the privacy of individuals.
These laws usually only apply to personal medical information in the hands of specific types of entities, like your doctor or other health care entity. Thus, for instance, information you give to a social network or search engine, a chat room or website discussion about a disease, is often not protected by existing medical privacy laws.
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, more commonly known as HIPAA, is the baseline set of federal regulations governing medical information. It does three things: Creates a structure for how personal health information may be disclosed and establishes the rights individuals have concerning their health information; sets out security standards for maintaining and transmitting electronic patient information; requires a common format and data structure for the electronic exchange of health information.
Before these innovations go much further, we have to look at pumping the brakes on Facebook and Google. There can be too much of a good thing.
According to news articles, Alexa will be able to perform a half-dozen health-related services. In addition to diabetes coaching, it can find the earliest urgent-care appointment in a given area and check the status of a prescription drug delivery. Even those services are raising red flags, because they should.
Convenience has a price. Service is a value.
Alexa, get us some antacids.