US Companies Are Using Big Data To Discourage Employees From Having Costly Surgery

US Companies Are Using Big Data To Discourage Employees From Having Costly Surgery

The Wall Street Journal has a chilling new report about the ways that companies like Walmart and J.P. Morgan Chase are using big data mining to track the health of their employees. And it’s no surprise that the methods are raising plenty of privacy concerns.

The companies hire third-party firms like Castlight Healthcare to analyse the aggregate data of their employees. And they claim that it’s not only a way to cut down on their health care bills, but a great way to keep employees healthy.

As the Wall Street Journal reports, spinal surgery in the US can cost $US20,000 ($27,880) or more. So when Castlight discovered that 30 per cent of Walmart employees who got second opinions opted not to get back surgery, the vendor made a concerted effort to communicate with employees about alternative options. Those options naturally included encouraging employees to get a second opinion.

The practice is new enough that most people don’t know that their personal health information is being monitored by a third party hired by their employer. But in the world of big data, there’s really no way to stop it.

American companies use vendors like Castlight, Welltok and GNS Healthcare to figure out things like who might be at risk for diabetes or a heart attack, which sounds altruistic enough, until you realise these vendors also track whether a woman is trying to get pregnant. The companies use a variety of methods, including looking at the searches made by employees on third party healthcare apps.

From the Wall Street Journal:

To determine which employees might soon get pregnant, Castlight recently launched a new product that scans insurance claims to find women who have stopped filling birth-control prescriptions, as well as women who have made fertility-related searches on Castlight’s health app.

That data is matched with the woman’s age, and if applicable, the ages of her children to compute the likelihood of an impending pregnancy, says Jonathan Rende, Castlight’s chief research and development officer. She would then start receiving emails or in-app messages with tips for choosing an obstetrician or other prenatal care. If the algorithm guessed wrong, she could opt out of receiving similar messages.

There are all kinds of ways that technology has helped people live longer and healthier lives over the past century. But those same tools that help individuals determine their risk for disease can also be used by corporations to manipulate their employees’ actions.

Welcome to our brave new healthcare dystopia.


Image: Castlight Health co-founder and CEO Dr Giovanni Colella on the floor of the NYSE, 14 March 2014 (AP)