Privacy Concerns Will Be Issue as Consumers Turn to Health-Care Technology

With a Rise in Tracking Sensors, Implications for Privacy Are Significant

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Spoiler alert if you haven't yet seen episode 10 of "Homeland" Season Two: Brody watches on as a terrorist hacks into the vice president's pacemaker and induces a heart attack. This shocking scenario, while theoretically possible, is highly unlikely and, lest you worry, there have been no recorded incidents of this nature in the real world.

'Homeland' plot included hacked pacemaker.
'Homeland' plot included hacked pacemaker.

But the convergence of internet technology and medicine is already very much here, both in reality and in the popular imagination. We saw many examples of it at last week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and we'll see even more as 2013 progresses. For example, Mountain View, Calif.-based IntraPace makes an implant called Abiliti, which is designed to help obese patients by placing sensors inside the patient's stomach that track eating patterns and share that information wirelessly. Meanwhile, low-level electronic impulses help the patient to feel full and reduce excessive consumption.

This kind of merger between health and technology seems promising to almost a fifth of the population, according to the Truth About Wellness survey conducted by McCann Truth Central. Our study found 18% of people said that they would like to insert a microchip inside their body to continually measure their health, and more than 1 in 10 said they would like to replace a particular part of their body with machinery.

But our research also revealed that consumers are grappling with a familiar question: Does the impressive utility technology is bringing into their lives outweigh the nagging fears and worries about whether they are losing something else along the way? For example, privacy, the attention of their children, their ability to switch off? This worry is likely to focus less on the impact of microchips inside the body and more on the proliferation of health sensors already in place on our smartphones and other everyday objects. This is where we expect discussion about the fears of health hacking is likely to focus.

In the past, we went to a doctor or hospital that measured our health with machines worth hundreds of thousand of dollars. In the future we'll monitor our own health all day and every day with sensors that are plentiful and cheap. Most excitingly, we will have access to incremental daily advice that could stop us from ever getting sick in the first place. In time we'll start to see health sensors in everything from our car seats to our fridges, toilets and jewelry.

Many consumers are ready to embrace this kind of innovation, with half (47%) of respondents in The Truth About Wellness survey saying they are already measuring their health often, and 27% telling us they rely on technology more than their instincts when it comes to managing their health (that figure rises to 49% in China).

The sheer omnipresence of sensors is about to create an explosion in the health data available. In fact, our smartphones could start to know more about our individual health than we do. PSFK recently reported that mobile startup is developing an application that uses smartphone data in a way that helps people with conditions including heart disease and diabetes. The app runs quietly on the patient's smartphone and captures a variety of data points including things like location and calling habits. That information is relayed to medical professionals, and an uncharacteristic change in behavior (lack of movement or reduction in calling behavior) could indicate to the doctor that the patient needs help. Simply put, your doctor (and your phone) might recognize that you're sick before you do.

But with this rise of tracking sensors, the implications for privacy are significant. Anything connected to the internet is at risk of being hacked. We saw that medical data is the second-most sensitive type of data for consumers (behind financial data). Whereas 71% of consumers are willing to share their shopping data, only 27% are willing to share their medical data.

Earlier in 2012 there were several incidents that hinted at the security risks associated with the mass digitization of large amounts of medical data. European hackers broke into the database for the Utah Department of Health and got their hands on the medical records of hundreds of thousands of patients. A serious medical-data breach can have many consequences, from blackmail to implications for medical-insurance premiums and identity theft. 

Technology will be the single most-transformative factor in the future of our overall wellness. In fact, as many as 1 in 5 people in our survey believe that at some point technology will eradicate the need for doctors. But expect to see some breaking points along the way. Marketers can unlock tremendous innovation for people in the health-care space via technology but a responsible approach to patient security and privacy must be a part of every conversation for those leading this brave new world.

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