Editorial: Private matters

Despite the implementation of Canada’s anti-spam legislation, I regularly get unsolicited email, most often poorly written phishing attempts (fraudulent email designed to get you to reveal personal information such as bank account or credit card details). Most of the time, it’s laughably inaccurate. But sometimes, it’s startlingly precise.

A big-data world means more opportunities to exploit personal information. But there’s also exciting potential to customize and target information to the end-user—a potential most employers have barely tapped into.

When we talk about ways to manage rising benefits plan costs and improve employee health, the issue of privacy inevitably surfaces. It did recently at our Toronto Face to Face Drug Plan Management Forum when discussing how to better identify health risks and manage chronic conditions within an employee population. Mike Sullivan, president of Cubic Health, said the data employers need is available; it’s time to just get on with it.

I agree. Because when I look at my activities outside of work, I’m already sharing a lot of personal information in the public domain.

Amazon knows what books I like and predicts what I’m likely to like. The websites I shop at the most remember my profile and preferences, offering deals based on my previous purchases. If I go to a restaurant and check in using Foursquare, you know where I am and what foods I enjoy—and, chances are, I’ll upload a photo of my delicious dinner to my Facebook timeline during the meal.

Employers worry employees don’t want them knowing about health issues or risk factors. They’re concerned workers will view it as Big Brother infringing on their privacy. But it’s not an all-or-nothing scenario: data can be aggregated and blinded.

Besides, how well substantiated is that fear? Have you actually asked your employees how they feel about it? People might be more comfortable if they understood the purpose isn’t just to save the employer a few bucks. It’s also to help employees improve their health—or even save their life.

I may not like random emails from Nigeria trying to empty my bank account, but I do like customized book and restaurant recommendations.

It’s all about how they’re positioned and what’s in it for me. It’s the same for employee health, I think. With thoughtful planning, proactive communication, careful implementation and clear delineation of what data is collected and how it will be used, I bet most employees will get on board. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to update my Facebook status.

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