Despite blinding data and following protocols, a recent investigation in Bloomberg Businessweek shows that clinical laboratories can be at risk in deals with pharmaceutical and big data companies

While big data is transforming how healthcare is both researched and applied, it also offers opportunities for clinical laboratories to create additional revenue from the endless streams of data generated by diagnostic tests and genetic assays. However, these opportunities come at a cost.

Data mining and pharmaceutical companies are turning to medical laboratories for blinded data (patients’ names are removed) to aid in their research and marketing efforts. Although the data is blinded to adhere to consumer privacy protocols, a story on the biopharmaceutical company Alexion (NASDAQ:ALXN) in Bloomberg Businessweek shows how clinical laboratories may be at risk for civil and legal ramifications, as well as public relation concerns.

When Blinded Patient Data Is Not Blind

Despite requirements to anonymize medical data, the increased computing and data collection abilities of data mining companies make it possible to bridge gaps in information by collating multiple data sources. Companies then can make assumptions about the data with relative accuracy.

With Alexion’s drug Soliris, the blinded data was enough to locate healthcare professionals treating patients with paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria (PNH), a rare disease of the blood, and atypical hemolytic uremic syndrome (aHUS) a rare disease of the immune system.

Cover of the Bloomberg Businessweek issue containing the article on Pharmaceutical companies’ use of blinded patient data for marketing high-cost “orphan drugs” that were developed to treat just one specific rare disease. (Photo copyright: Bloomberg Businessweek.)

On the surface, this seems like an ideal example of how making clinical laboratory and pathology data available to companies can be beneficial to patients and a victory for healthcare.

However, the Bloomberg Businessweek article highlights a darker side of the issue, noting, “Alexion set out to persuade doctors to test more frequently for PNH and aHUS—and to find a way to glimpse these test results, which traditionally have been shared only among the patient, the doctor ordering the test, and the lab.”

Liability and Risk in Age of Big Data

By reaching out to doctors and encouraging them to route lab tests to preferred medical laboratories with which they allegedly had partnered, Alexion could collect information and compare it to their database to pinpoint opportunities to sell their orphan drug Soliris. An orphan drug contains a unique pharmaceutical agent that was developed to treat a specific rare disease.

Five clinical laboratory companies are named in the story. While these laboratories might have followed regulations and the partnerships might be legal, news stories such as these could result in public relations crises and damaged reputations.

According to the Bloomberg Businessweek article, Alexion is resolving legal or regulatory concerns in at least seven countries. Though there is no precedent for medical laboratories assuming liability or being implicated in the crimes of a company to which they sold blinded data, the possibility exists.

Increased Scrutiny as Privacy Becomes a Public Concern

Healthcare big data continues to unlock new opportunities and create new approaches in treating disease and improving health around the world. However, as the public gains awareness of how healthcare big data is collected, shared, and used, greater scrutiny of how the data is handled, and the parties involved, will likely follow.

Dark Daily reported on the balancing act faced by laboratories in a 2016 e-briefing titled, “Trading in Medical Data: Is this a Headache or an Opportunity for Pathologists and Clinical Laboratories?

That e-briefing cites a Scientific American article in which author Adam Tanner, a fellow at Harvard University’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science, states, “At present, the system is so opaque that many doctors, nurses, and patients are unaware that the information they record or divulge in an electronic health record, or the results from lab tests they request or consent to, may be anonymized and sold.”

In a similar story, Ancestry recently experienced how fast opinions can shift when certain online publications questioned the terms and conditions of the company’s AncestryDNA service. In a matter of days, the service went from an interesting example of consumer genomics to a trending topic on social media.

In the Slate article “Who Owns Your Genetic Data After a Home DNA Test?,” author Jacob Brogan notes, “Even if Ancestry maintains its current commitment to protecting its customers’ data, its willingness to profit from that information may raise red flags for the future of consumer genetic testing.”

While Ancestry might resolve its immediate troubles with an update to its terms of service governing how and when it sells the genetic information of its customers, the hit to the company’s reputation could continue to impact its business. This is something the five clinical lab companies affiliated with Alexion and named in the Bloomberg Businessweek story may be experiencing as well.

As competition increases and clinical laboratories work to cultivate and improve revenue streams and reduce costs, it remains important to stay ahead of trends—and public opinion—by choosing partnerships carefully and remaining transparent about how patient data is collected, shared or sold, and used.

—Jon Stone

Related Information:

When the Patient Is a Gold Mine: The Trouble With Rare-disease Drugs

Your Medical Data Is for Sale, and There’s Nothing You Can Do About It

How Data Brokers Make Money Off Your Medical Records

Who Owns Your Genetic Data After a Home DNA Test?