The privacy risks of sharing health info online

The Privacy Risks of Sharing Health Info Online

In today’s Internet-connected world, social networks are quickly becoming part of many people’s everyday lives. Frequently used to share family news, tidbits of interesting information and photographs, these websites help people stay connected with each other. Unfortunately, many people use these sites without realizing the security, electronic privacy and online reputation risks they’re exposing themselves to.

Social networking websites that allow individuals to share health information are a growing trend. These websites can seem like a great way for people to share information and to get the help they need. However, before you join a medical-related social network, consider the following privacy risks of sharing health info online.


Risk 1: Identity theft isn’t healthy.

Just as is the case with other social networking websites, medical-related sites can make a person more vulnerable to identity theft. Those who use these websites often believe they can keep their profiles, personal information and medical details anonymous. Users depend on the websites’ privacy controls and sometimes even try using a fictitious name for added protection.

However, it’s easier than you might think for an identity thief to find out who you are. This can be especially true when a person utilizes other social networking websites in addition to a medical social network. Without too much effort, an identity thief can match up personal details, account user names or other telling pieces of information. Before you know it, a match is made between an individual’s public social networking site and his or her supposedly anonymous health records. This kind of connection can frequently be made using sophisticated tools or readily available account details, putting a person at risk. An identity thief could even uncover enough medical details to use them for prescription or financial fraud.

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Risk 2: Potentially damaging information should remain private.

Even if an identity thief doesn’t abuse your personal information and medical history, there are still risks inherent to sharing this information online. For example, your serious health concerns or conditions could be used against you. If potential employers or insurance companies are able to discover this kind of information, it could be used in a detrimental or even discriminating fashion. This scenario can be especially true in the case of diseases that even to this day have stigmas attached to them.

Amazingly, people often freely share online the kind of personal medical history that doctors and health care organizations are trying diligently to protect. Health care organizations spend a lot of time and money each year to help protect the privacy rights of patients. Then these same patients turn around and post personal details voluntarily on medical-related social networking websites.

Unfortunately, people who have illnesses and serious conditions are often very desperate for information and assistance. As a result, they inadvertently overlook the privacy risks of sharing health info online and how damaging this information could become when posted online.


Risk 3: Don’t risk a negative financial impact because of your illness.

Individuals who have health issues frequently have financial challenges as a result of their illnesses. Lost time from work, medical bills and other expenses can all negatively impact a person’s financial status.

Sharing personal information related to an illness could actually leave a person exposed to even more financial risk. For example, business associates or financial institutions could learn that a person is suffering from a serious illness. Armed with this data, they might be less likely to do business with the person. As such, sharing this kind of information could harm business deals, contract negotiations and other activities related to one’s finances.

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Risk 4: Misused medical data can be used for the wrong purposes.

Medical-related social networking websites could also make it easy for a person’s private medical data to be used for inappropriate purposes. For example, data could be harvested and sold to pharmaceutical companies, possibly subjecting people to a barrage of emails, phone calls and other pharmaceutical marketing efforts that might reverse some of the benefits achieved by legislation and privacy laws. These medical social networks could potentially be selling patient data even as health care institutions are trying to protect it.


Risk 5: Your lack of data security can drive health care costs higher.

Every year, health care companies spend millions of dollars in order to protect the records of their patients. As is the case with other expenses, these costs are ultimately passed on to the public. If patients are sharing freely the same information they’re trying to protect, the health care industry may find itself needing to focus on wider security concerns.

Health care organizations have focused on security controls restricting how their own employees can or cannot participate in these websites. They generally do a good job of training their employees about the risks of these websites. However, they may find themselves challenged and perplexed in dealing with patients who willingly share their own information, making privacy risks of sharing health info online a reality.


Risk 6. You can put your health in jeopardy through misdiagnosed illnesses and erroneous medical advice.

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Patients who pin their hopes on receiving good medical advice from these social networking websites are also risking their overall health and well-being. It’s important to remember that these medical networking websites don’t utilize a dependable authentication process. As a result, people might take medical advice from a person who is only pretending to be a doctor. Instead of receiving the good medical advice and care they need, they could potentially be putting their health at risk.

Before joining and participating in one of these medical social networking websites, it’s important to understand and evaluate the potential security and privacy risks. Just as is the case with other social networking websites, prudence and caution should be used when sharing personal information.


Susan Campbell is an independent privacy consultant and author of several articles on online privacy management and reputation management.

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