Using big data to mine employee health recordsNews added by Benefits Pro on February 19, 2016

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Joined: September 07, 2011

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By Jack Craver

Employee wellness programs are growing in popularity, but with the increased popularity comes more scrutiny and criticism.

A good recent example comes thanks to a story in the Wall Street Journal about how employers and insurers are working to mine medical data of employees to assess the health of the workforce and anticipate which employees will become sick.

Wal-Mart, for instance, has contracted with a company that analyzes its employees health records and identifies workers at risk of chronic conditions such as diabetes. That allows the employer to reach out to those employees, directing them to resources to get medical help.

Data miners can even anticipate employee pregnancies by seeing who is on birth control and who is getting fertility treatment. And, of particular interest to insurers, the algorithms sometimes find those who are considering expensive medical treatments or surgeries and directs them to consider whether the procedure is really a good bet.

As one can imagine, not everybody is thrilled by such tactics. The companies involved insist that the data is not individualized, so the boss never knows exactly who is trying to get pregnant or who is considering a knee replacement, but some privacy advocates say it could eventually become like that.

At least one prominent critic of wellness programs, however, is not particularly bothered by the trend. Al Lewis, CEO of Quizzify, a health care consultancy, said that at least the efforts to predict employee health issues are based on sound data. In contrast, he argues, many corporate wellness programs that focus on getting workers to lose weight are not based on empirical evidence of success.

For most wellness programs, he told BenefitsPro, “Literally there is no argument in favor of it.”

However, he added, despite the eery connotations of bosses scrutinizing employee medical records, “there is some benefit in avoiding unnecessary surgeries. So it’s gray, not black-and-white.”

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