10/11/2016 02:53 EDT | Updated 10/11/2016 02:54 EDT

Is Selling Your Health Data The Liberals' Budget-Balancing Plan?

eric hoskins

Health Minister Eric Hoskins. (Photo: Andrew Francis Wallace/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Last week, Ontario's Liberal Government announced plans to consider monetizing the data stored by eHealth Ontario. In an open letter to Premier Kathleen Wynne's Business Adviser Ed Clark, Health Minister Eric Hoskins asked him to do a "value assessment of Ontario's digital health assets and all related intellectual property and infrastructure." Additionally, he asked that Clark look at ways to "maximize the value of these assets."

As Christina Blizzard of the Toronto Sun pointed out on Twitter, making an announcement of this magnitude on a Friday before a long weekend strongly suggests they are hiding something.

The issue, as Eric Hoskins knows very well, is that the actual infrastructure itself really doesn't have much value. As anyone who has bought a computer knows, the hardware, servers, Internet lines, etc. depreciate depressingly fast. Even software needs regular updates. That stuff isn't going to bring in any money.

What has a lot of value, however, is patient data. Imagine having a repository of personal health data at your fingertips. Being able to analyze which areas have, for example, a high rate of depression would give pharmaceutical companies that make anti-depressants exactly what they need to target specific regions for sales. Areas that have a high rate of prostate disease? Easy targets for companies that manufacture drugs for erectile dysfunction.

This type of data is a treasure trove for private businesses and would be worth a lot of money to them. Just look at how Facebook has been able to monetize the personal information it has stored on all its "friends."

But wait, isn't your personal health data stored at your physician's office, not at eHealth?

The optics are really bad here.

Well, my patients don't have to worry as all their data (and the data of all patients in the Georgian Bay Triangle) is stored on a local server. However, for the past few years, eHealth Ontario has actively been encouraging physicians to house personal information with medical software that uses an Application Service Provider (ASP). What this means is that when your physician logs into the Electronic Medical Record (EMR) and enters your information, it's actually transmitted and stored off-site, usually at a secure server housed in the offices of whichever company owns the actual EMR Software.

This is promoted by both eHealth and the EMR companies as an easier way for physicians to practice, as they don't have to worry about taking care of a server, backups, firewalls and all the other required security solutions. However, many of EMR companies are big corporations who have many different divisions, a lot of who would love to get their hands on this kind of data.

Take the case of Telus Corporation. Mostly known by the general public for telecommunications, Telus also has a large health-care division that owns many different types of EMR software. Telus International has a variety of interests including gaming, e-commerce, travel and more. And yes, Telus Health promotes an ASP solution for EMR as well.

telus corporation

Telus Corp. is a telecommunications company providing voice, data, Internet and wireless services to businesses and consumers in Canada. (Photo: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

OK, well then why doesn't government tell eHealth not to support software solutions that have an ASP? This would prevent corporations from being tempted to access this data and provide patients with an additional sense of security.

Well, look who shows up on a list of top campaign donors to the Ontario Liberal Party in their last by election. Why, none other than Telus Corporation.

It would be wrong of me to suggest any wrongdoing by Telus, and in fact, they have a very strong reputation in the medical community for the quality of their software and the strength of their security protocols. I've met many of the executives at Telus and found them to be extremely professional and ethical. But the optics are really bad here.

Companies that can potentially benefit from having easy access to this type of data have donated to the Liberal re-election campaign.

You have a Liberal Party that has dismal approval ratings in Ontario. They've made a promise to balance the budget by the next election. The Auditor General has told them that the province doesn't have as much money as the Liberals claim. Yet they are sitting on a treasure trove of data that does have significant value, and could bring in money that would help balance the books.

To top it all off, companies that can potentially benefit from having easy access to this type of data have donated to the Liberal re-election campaign.

The whole situation smacks of a desperate cash grab by the Liberals on the back of patient's private health data in order to try to win an election. Here's hoping the consultation with health stakeholders that Hoskins promises in his open letter will put a stop to the selling of private patient information, even if in an aggregate manner.

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