Privacy Fears Keep Consumers Off Health Sites

Successful development of the online healthcare field will depend upon companies adequately handling consumers’ concerns about privacy, ethical and security issues, according to a report by Cyber Dialogue.

The report, “Protecting Consumer Privacy in Online Healthcare,” is based in part on a survey sponsored by the California HealthCare Foundation and the Internet Healthcare Coalition. It found that among the 37 million online users who do not currently use online health information, 6.3 million are not doing so primarily because of privacy and security concerns. The report identifies several measures that, if implemented, could have a positive impact on users’ desires to release personal health information online. The study also explores the attitudes of African-Americans, Asians and Latinos towards online healthcare.

“Consumers have recognized that their privacy may be at stake in an online healthcare environment that has merged editorial content with advertising, commercial sponsorships and e-commerce,” said Carolyn Gratzer, senior analyst in Cyber Dialogue’s Health Practice. “Businesses have an opportunity — and an imperative — to create the highest standards of privacy and security in online healthcare and to educate consumers on the facts about these issues.”

In particular, online health seekers are concerned that insurers could use private personal health data to limit or affect their insurance coverage, or that employers could use such information to limit job opportunities. In fact, many Internet users fear that the mere act of searching for general health-related information online may bring repercussions from insurers and employers.

“The very aspects of Internet-driven healthcare that hold the most promise for improving care delivery are the same aspects that raise the most concern among the public,” Gratzer said. “For example, online medical record keeping, even if access is restricted to an individual and his or her physician, is viewed as the greatest threat to individual privacy.”

Other findings in the report include:

  • 49 percent of Caucasians online seek health information online, compared to 38 percent of African Americans, 37 percent of Asian Americans, and 29 percent of Hispanics.
  • Consumers are uncertain whether personal health data are protected by law and confused about whom should regulate Internet health information.
  • e-Health consumers are most likely to trust their physicians, medical institutes and associations to maintain the privacy of their personal health information; they are least likely to trust pharmaceutical companies, Web portals and online drugstores.

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