The ongoing debate between consumer privacy advocates and advertisers has reared its head in the world of medical data analytics for pharmaceuticals. Internet companies and pharmaceutical manufacturers are collaborating to enable anonymous tracking of prescription drug use. Jordan Robertson and Shannon Pettypiece describe the operation (“The Big Business of Selling Rx Records” Bloomberg Businessweek, 12/15/14–12/21/15), pp. 19–20):
“In a process known as a matchback, third-party companies assign patients unique numerical codes based on their prescription-drug records. . . . That lets pharmaceutical companies identify groups who use a specific medicine and send them tailored web ads.” (p. 20)
Consumer privacy advocates are crying foul, claiming that big-data brokers are probing too far. I do not buy the argument. The data that is transferred is done so with any personally identifying information scrubbed. As Jody Fisher, director of U.S. product management for one of the major data brokers, IMS Health Holdings, affirms:
“It involves tracking patients over time anonymously. . . . It helps all stakeholders identify patterns of behavior that make delivery of health care more efficient.” (p. 20)
While I am all for privacy protections, this is a case in which many more people stand to benefit via enhanced healthcare delivery and efficiency. Moreover, because no names travel with the data, we have no consumer-privacy issue here.