You choose, we deliver
If you are interested in this story, you might be interested in others from The Journal Gazette. Go to www.journalgazette.net/newsletter and pick the subjects you care most about. We'll deliver your customized daily news report at 3 a.m. Fort Wayne time, right to your email.

Business

  • Wild month ends on high
    NEW YORK – For stock investors, there was no shortage of drama in October.
  • Wal-Mart lists 100 items to ship free
    NEW YORK – Wal-Mart is doing whatever it takes to rope in holiday shoppers however they want to buy. For the first time, Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
  • Japan's bank bulks upbond-buying program
    TOKYO – Japan's central bank surprised the financial world and pleased investors Friday by intensifying its purchases of government bonds and other assets to try to revive a chronically anemic economy.
Advertisement

Big data heading to doctors

Buying patterns may predict risks of health, disease

You may soon get a call from your doctor if you’ve let your gym membership lapse, made a habit of picking up candy bars at the check-out counter or begin shopping at plus-sized stores.

That’s because some hospitals are starting to use detailed consumer data to create profiles on current and potential patients to identify those most likely to get sick, so the hospitals can intervene before they do.

Information compiled by data brokers from public records and credit card transactions can reveal where a person shops, the food they buy, and whether they smoke. The largest hospital chain in the Carolinas is plugging data for 2 million people into algorithms designed to identify high-risk patients, while Pennsylvania’s biggest system uses household and demographic data. Patients and their advocates, meanwhile, say they’re concerned that big data’s expansion into medical care will hurt the doctor-patient relationship and threaten privacy.

“It is one thing to have a number I can call if I have a problem or question, it is another thing to get unsolicited phone calls. I don’t like that,” said Jorjanne Murry, an accountant in Charlotte, North Carolina, who has Type 1 diabetes. “I think it is intrusive.”

Acxiom Corp. and LexisNexis are two of the largest data brokers who collect such information on individuals. They say their data are supposed to be used only for marketing, not for medical purposes or to be included in medical records.

While both sell to health insurers, they said it’s to help those companies offer better services to members.

Much of the information on consumer spending may seem irrelevant for a hospital or doctor, but it can provide a bigger picture beyond the brief glimpse that doctors get during an office visit or through lab results, said Michael Dulin, director of research and evidence-based medicine at Carolinas HealthCare System.

Carolinas HealthCare System operates the largest group of medical centers in North Carolina and South Carolina, with more than 900 care centers, including hospitals, nursing homes, doctors’ offices and surgical centers. The health system is placing its data, which include purchases a patient has made using a credit card or store loyalty card, into predictive models that give a risk score to patients.

Within the next two years, Dulin plans for that score to be regularly passed to doctors and nurses who can reach out to high-risk patients to suggest interventions before patients fall ill.

For a patient with asthma, the hospital would be able to score how likely they are to arrive at the emergency room by looking at whether they’ve refilled their asthma medication at the pharmacy, been buying cigarettes at the grocery store and live in an area with a high pollen count, Dulin said. The system may also score the probability of a heart attack by factors such as the type of foods they buy.

“What we are looking to find are people before they end up in trouble,” said Dulin, who is also a practicing physician.

Advertisement