Meet the Company Selling Our Medical Data

July 22, 2016

A company with a long history is getting fresh scrutiny. An article at Fortune reports, “This Little-Known Firm Is Getting Rich Off Your Medical Data.” Writer Adam Tanner informs us:

“A global company based in Danbury, Connecticut, IMS  buys bulk data from pharmacy chains such as CVS , doctor’s electronic record systems such as Allscripts, claims from insurers such as Blue Cross Blue Shield and from others who handle your health information. The data is anonymized—stripped from the identifiers that identify individuals. In turn, IMS sells insights from its more than half a billion patient dossiers mainly to drug companies.

“So-called health care data mining is a growing market—and one largely dominated by IMS. Last week, the company reported 2015 net income of $417 million on revenue of $2.9 billion, compared with a loss of $189 million in 2014 (an acquisition also boosted revenue over the year). ‘The outlook for this business remains strong,’ CEO Ari Bousbib said in announcing the earnings.”

IMS Health dates back to the 1950s, when a medical ad man sought to make a buck on drug-sales marketing reports. In the 1980s and ‘90s, the company thrived selling profiles of specific doctors’ proscribing patterns to pharmaceutical marketing folks. Later, they moved into aggregating information on individual patients—anonymized, of course, in accordance with HIPAA rules.

Despite those rules, some are concerned about patient privacy. IMS does not disclose how it compiles their patient dossiers, and it may be possible that records could, somehow someday, become identifiable. One solution would be to allow patients to opt out of contributing their records to the collection, anonymized or not, as marketing data firm Acxiom began doing in 2013.

Of course, it isn’t quite so simple for the consumer. Each health record system makes its own decisions about data sharing, so opting out could require changing doctors. On the other hand, many of us have little choice in our insurance provider, and a lot of those firms also share patient information. Will IMS move toward transparency, or continue to keep patients in the dark about the paths of their own medical data?


Cynthia Murrell, July 22, 2016

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