You can walk into a pharmacy any day and buy a test kit to find out if you are ovulating so that you can undertake family planning activities. You can buy home testing kits to screen for high cholesterol, presence of the HIV virus, even illicit drug use. You can also pony up $500 and buy yourself a genetic test kit from 23andMe, a retail DNA testing service, to find out what might be in your genetic blueprint. Hey, you can even visit a fortune teller if you feel that is how you want to make pre-emptive healthcare decisions.
While some might look askew at how you get information to make choices about your life, it is rare that someone steps in and tries to stop you from doing so. In general, the American way is to say, “Hey, you’re an adult and it’s your life. If you want to engage in self-actualization, whether or not it has a scientific basis, that’s your beeswax.”
As medicine has evolved to a point where over-the-counter testing has become more and more accessible, many consumers have responded to the perceived advantages of privacy, convenience and the heightened ability to make health decisions early. In fact, these are part of the key principles espoused by those who believe that consumers have a right to their own healthcare information. The idea is that the information is about you, the healthcare consumer, and thus should be both readily available to you and yours to do with what you wish. And yet, that is not always the case. Often it’s not even close.
Oddly, our healthcare system has evolved in such a way that your
medical records are owned by the physician or hospital or insurance
carrier that oversees what happens to you, but do not, in the end,
belong to you. Essentially, your medical information is owned by some
one else. The records are about you, for goodness sake. Why shouldn’t
you have full access to the data whenever and however you want just as
you would if you took a home pregnancy test?
A story that came out of UC Berkeley this month once again puts this
controversy in the spotlight. As part of a long-standing tradition, my
alma mater has had a mission to examine “issues of profound societal
importance for the benefits of students and the public.” To achieve
that objective, they have traditionally asked all incoming new students
to read a common book and then take multiple classes that use that book
as part of a grander curriculum to study issues of great societal
importance. This year, as an alternative to asking students to read the
assignment, the university decided instead to “examine the DNA-based
technologies certain to alter medical care in the years ahead.”
Specifically, students will be offered the opportunity to look at three
of their 20,000-plus genes to learn how they digest milk products and
metabolize alcohol and whether they need more folic acid, a vitamin
found in leafy green vegetables.”
The idea was to use genetic testing to engage students in a debate about the ethical, legal and social issues raised by the burgeoning fields of genetics and personalized medicine. The program’s sponsors said “they specifically chose genes that were not connected to serious health issues.” More than 5,000 genetic testing kits were sent to incoming students. Seven hundred samples were already returned when this was reported in the San Francisco Chronicle:
Under pressure from state public health officials, the professors behind U.C Berkeley’s controversial plan to genetically test incoming freshmen and transfer students said Thursday that they will scale back the program. Participants will not receive personal results from their DNA samples. The university raised the ire of genetic watchdog and privacy groups in May, when it first launched “Bring Your Genes to Cal.” The voluntary program is believed to be the largest genetic testing project at a U.S. university.
Why was the change implemented? According to reports, “critics said the program was pushing an unproven technology on impressionable students who could misinterpret the significance of their test results.” Mark Schlissel, dean of biological sciences at UC Berkeley, has posed this question: “Who has authority to tell an individual what they’re allowed to know about themselves? “I don’t know the answer to that.” He added: “We believe this is a flawed reading of the statute that raises questions about who has control over teaching at the university, and in the broader sense, who has control over information about our own genes.”
Participation in the gene-testing program was not mandatory, participants in the program signed consent forms and it was clear that the data would be provided to students on a confidential basis. Plus, participants in the program were adults. This is where you see the conflict between consumer engagement and traditional medicine in action. Notably, these students could go to any one of at least five websites, purchase genetic tests and receive results in the privacy of their own homes. Yet when performed under the auspices of “the healthcare system”, which is how the State of California chose to view the administration of these tests, consumers essentially lost their right to get what they paid for—data about their own bodies.
It’s interesting that who owns your medical data is so subject to debate. There should be no more fundamental right than owning data that is, in the end, about you — and you alone. This seems especially obvious when you purchase the data for your own use, which is effectively what Cal students did by agreeing to participate in the program alongside their tuition agreement.
The loudest arguments against consumers owning their medical data generally fall into two categories:
- The tests are imperfect so individuals should not make decisions solely from the data provided from these tests; or,
- The information is extremely sensitive. If it was given to an individual without a physician present, he or she might make terrible choices from that data.
The first reason is definitely worth worrying about. Consumer genetic tests have been controversial because they aren’t FDA-regulated and have not proven to provide entirely reliable results. There have been recent studies of gene testing products that have questioned the utility of these tests, saying that they produce inconsistent results more than half of the time and also produce false positive results that might lead consumers to make poor healthcare choices (Reuters).
Still, this would be a more valid argument if we didn’t have the same problem in widely accepted medical tests used by doctors every day, such as Fasting Plasma Glucose tests used to screen for diabetes, which are known to be highly inaccurate, or an abundance of diagnostic imaging tests such as mammograms. These are also notorious for false positive findings and wide variance in results, based, in part, on which clinician is interprets them. This largely leads people to the second argument: Consumers aren’t able to make good healthcare decisions alone.
This is probably right. Smart consumers use their healthcare information in conjunction with experts who are qualified to help them make treatment decisions. This is the best course, but it’s obviously not the same as saying that consumers shouldn’t have a right to see or own their own information.
I find the whole UC Berkeley debate to be somewhat of a red herring. It is easy to find out the same genetic data and even to establish your own personal health record (“PHR”) on Google Health or the Microsoft Health Vault. It is true that these have significant limitations. They don’t yet take much data directly from providers and rely heavily on consumers inputting their own data, which is not always complete. It is also true that many of these newfangled PHRs are not subject to HIPAA privacy rules and thus could be more readily accessed or abused by those other than the consumer. Yet consumers are so aggravated by the difficulty in having a comprehensive medical record that they are willing to turn to non-healthcare companies to do it on their own and take their chances on privacy.
The idea of keeping people from data about their own bodies flies in the face of what we are taught about our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, privacy and self-determination. It is clear that consumers want more access to their medical data and that advances in technology will make this a reality. As consumers are asked to take a greater role in paying for their own healthcare and managing their own health insurance, they are going to start seeking information to guide them in their new-found roles as healthcare decision-makers. Paternalistic attempts to keep patients from their own medical data, such as that in the Berkeley case, are likely to be hard to enforce. One-way communication between physician and patient is a model that has already begun to erode, as patients frequently come into their physician’s office armed with WebMD print-outs and home diagnostic test results.
While we should applaud efforts to ensure that data privacy and that home diagnostics are reliable and accurate, we must encourage greater transparency and availability of information to ensure that the true goal of consumer engagement can be realized. Companies are emerging to provide consumers with pricing data, quality data, data about medical errors and physician ratings. These are incredibly meaningful ideas, but it is the medical content that will, in the end, be the most meaningful for consumers who wish to actively engage in living a healthier life. To quote that great representative of American self-determination, Jon Bon Jovi:
It’s my life,
It’s now or never,
I ain’t gonna live forever,
I just wanna live while I’m alive
While it may not be life-changing for an 18-year old college student to know that his genes predispose him to effectively metabolize the milk in his triple shot non-fat latte, it is, as they say, the principle of the thing. If Americans are going to get as close as they can to living forever, they will need all available tools to do so. No tool is more powerful than real-time access to personal medical information that fosters highly individualized health and wellness practices. Information is power in medicine, as in every other facet of life, and every effort should be made to eliminate barriers that stand between a person and their own medical information.
Lisa Suennen is a managing member of Psilos Group, co-headquartered in the Bay Area and New York City, The firm has funded and developed more than 38 innovative companies, including ActiveHealth, AngioScore, Click4Care, Definity Health, ExtendHealth and OmniGuide. Lisa regularly posts on her blog, Venture Valkyrie.