Are We Ready for The Explosion in Healthcare Data?

In God we trust. All others must bring data.
— W. Edwards Deming

WE’VE REACHED A PIVOTAL POINT IN TIME at which we already have the possibility to create an “Internet of People” through everything from smartwatches and other wearables to electronic implants. But this comes with an interesting quandary when it comes to who’ll have ownership and access to the data that we create. In an article for the Wall Street Journal, professor of law and computer science Dr. Andrea Matwyshyn argues, “Using the human body as a technology platform raises a host of challenging legal and policy questions that regulators and judges may not be prepared to answer.”

On top of the technologies and devices that we already know about and have access to, we can expect much more to come from the future. Examples include smart tattoos that monitor patients’ vital signs or internet-connected contact lenses. This is all well and good and bodes well for the future of healthcare, but there are all sorts of legal and ethical questions which are also raised when dealing with the kind of sensitive data that the healthcare industry relies upon.

“For the first time,” Dr. Matwyshyn explains, “our physical safety, autonomy, and well-being can — and inevitably will — be harmed because of flawed software or lapses in security. Yet the law is unprepared to address the injuries that the Internet of Bodies will bring.”

As easy as playing with LEGO.

This reminds me of a similar debate in the field of artificial intelligence: namely the debate behind who’s responsible if a patient dies as a result of a flawed recommendation by a piece of software. As for the Internet of People, Matwyshyn highlights five key areas of concern that we, as a society, need to address:

  1. REGULATORY ISSUES: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t necessarily cover wearable devices like fitness trackers. In many cases, oversight would fall to the Federal Trade Commission, a much smaller agency that has neither the resources or the expertise that are needed.

  2. INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY: One of the big threats here is that of the patent troll, which is essentially when someone buys up patents to make money by enforcing the patent as opposed to actually using it to develop a product or service. Another issue is that companies could develop proprietary systems and then go out of business, leaving patients implanted with medical devices which are no longer supported.

  3. CONTRACT LAW: We’re so used to accepting license agreements and privacy policies these days that we rarely stop to read the small print. The problem is that if we follow a similar model when using devices for our bodies, we could sign away more than we intend to. An example of this is when companies “brick” a device unless the user accepts the latest changes to the licensing agreement. Will they be able to do the same even if we’ve been implanted with a physical device?

  4. BANKRUPTCY: Historically, contract rights and databases have been treated as assets during bankruptcy. But what will happen if a prosthetics manufacturer goes bust? And who will have access to that data? These are questions that we need to ask ourselves now instead of waiting until it’s too late.