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Dr. Google is now Dr. Facebook ad


In today’s world, “internet” and “privacy” feel like opposites that do not belong in the same sentence.

Editor's Note: Welcome to Medical Economics' blog section which features contributions from members of the medical community. These blogs are an opportunity for bloggers to engage with readers about a topic that is top of mind, whether it is practice management, experiences with patients, the industry, medicine in general, or healthcare reform. The series continues with this blog by Henry Anhalt, DO, who is in private practice treating pediatric patients with type 1 diabetes. He is also chief medical officer for T1D Exchange, a nonprofit organization. The views expressed in these blogs are those of their respective contributors and do not represent the views of Medical Economics or UBM Medica.


In today’s world, “internet” and “privacy” feel like opposites that do not belong in the same sentence. Very few things, in fact, feel private anymore-I know what my son had for dinner by checking Facebook and seeing his posts with his friends.

Henry Anhalt, DO

Yet, while they may not feel private, we do have control over how and what we choose to share with the world, or with a select group of people. We are in total control of our online privacy-or, at least, we were.


Further reading: How to keep your patients from switching physicians


In March 2016, in a 215-205 vote on Senate Joint Resolution 34 (H. Res. 230), the House voted to repeal broadband privacy, which the FCC had introduced in 2016 under the Obama administration. The rules, which were designed to protect consumers, require Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to seek consent from their customers before they could share sensitive, private data.

In today’s not-so-private world, this bill doesn’t seem like a big deal-at least, not at first glance. For the average consumer, just about every website they visit online is sharing data with other ad networks and other third parties to create targeted ads, so what’s the big deal about another company having a piece of it, too? Today’s predominant business model is ad-supported, so for the average user, the online experience isn’t likely to change dramatically. However, the passing of this bill could have dramatic implications on patients-or potential patients, especially when considering an individual’s medical data is seen to be one of the most rewarding and most difficult of all data to analyze.

The first thing most individuals do when they are feeling ill is research their symptoms online. Now, as a doctor, it’s not an approach I readily encourage. But the reality is, most patients review their symptoms online before seeing a professional.

Next: How to protect your identity online


Once a patient does that, ISPs can now not only collect that data-they can sell it to the highest bidder. Search “cough and fever,” and your ISP can sell it to someone for whom it has value-so, this patient might be served an ad on flu medicine, for example, the next time they browse the internet.


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Maybe the ad was served with a coupon for flu medicine at your local drug store, so it’s a pretty good experience. But data privacy experts are warning of more dire consequences. Imagine a patient is researching symptoms that could suggest something like cancer, or a chronic disease like type 1 diabetes. An ISP could sell this information to insurers. Can the insurer flag the patient for premium hikes? A dire scenario, perhaps, but not unimaginable.

We can’t be sure of the implications of the recent legislation just yet, but consumers should be aware of them. Since the vote, AT&T, Comcast and Verizon have each declared they will not sell browsing data to third parties. To those that are concerned, however, there are a few things you can do to protect your identity online:

1.     Turn on your web browser’s “do not track” feature

2.     Clear or reset the ad ID on your phone

3.     Look for emails from your internet service provider allowing you to opt out of ad-targeting programs

4.     Turn off location-based ad targeting on your phone

5.     Choose private (or “incognito”) browsing on your computer

ISPs have access to massive amounts of consumer data. For now, we should wait and see how ISPs choose to use this data. Until then, health consumers should be mindful of the information they browse online, be aware of the tools and techniques at their disposal and be thoughtful about how private they would like to keep their Internet use.


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For more information on the bill, please visit https://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes/115-2017/h202.



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