Employers Can Use Health Insurance Data to Track Employee Pregnancies

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Ultrasound ScanWhen your FitBit knows you’re pregnant before you do, it’s cute and exciting. When your employer knows you’re pregnant–or planning on getting pregnant–before you’ve told them, it’s a terrible invasion of privacy. Still, it looks like that could actually be happening now thanks to some corporations hiring third-party firms to analyze data as a means of cutting health costs.

According to the Wall Street Journal, employees are able to use third-party firms to mine employees’ health and insurance data to predict risks of developing certain health conditions. Diabetes, for example, or heart disease, or a serious case of fetus-in-womb.

The Wall Street Journal’s Rachel Emma Silverman writes:

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 does sound pretty scary at first glance, and according to Fortune it is not a violation of HIPAA because one’s searches on healthcare apps don’t count as protected information. Besides, data analytics companies don’t even really need to access private information to figure this sort of thing out, either. They are already able to get more information out of your random data than you might expect.

Target famously distressed customers by sending targeted “new parent” ads and offers to people who had not told anyone they were expecting. Those people were understandably freaked out by the fact that Target knew they were pregnant without their having told anybody, but it was because Target’s data said that customers who were suddenly doing things like looking for fragrance-free laundry detergent and organic moisturizers were probably pregnant and might want to receive coupons for diapers and cribs.

The idea of one’s employer monitoring one’s health data to predict pregnancy is pretty scary. Companies do not have a history of loving it when their employees get pregnant and become mothers, and one can hardly imagine that a company would be using this information to throw surprise baby showers.

But those data-mining firms are not actually giving employers information about specific employees. Castlight, for example, is reportedly using the health data to make predictions about employees’ health so that they can send notifications encouraging them to make more healthful choices. The hypothetical woman who is thinking about getting pregnant might get alerts about prenatal care, for example. And employees can reportedly opt-out of this kind of data-gathering, according to the Wall Street Journal. But those alerts go to the employee, not the employer.

According to Vox, Castlight says employers receive only nameless data in groups of 40 employees or more, so an employer might be told how many people might be at risk of developing diabetes, or heart disease, or carpal tunnel syndrome, or pregnancy. The employer would not, however, get the names of specific employees, or even health information that applies to fewer than 40 employees at a time.

Still, there are other data firms out there and more coming, and there’s no guarantee that they will all follow the same standards and practices, or even that these standards and practices will remain constant over the years. Data-mining is a complicated issue, and while there does not seem to be any immediate fear that employers will start mining data to fire pregnant women or people at risk for diabetes, employer monitoring of employee health data does make people uneasy, in large part because it’s a relatively new and largely unregulated practice with not a lot of transparency. Someone’s watching us and can tell a lot about us, and sometimes it feels like we’re just sitting around hoping that person is going to be benevolent, and that their data never gets hacked.

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