Ethics and e-health in insurance

The 2016 Data Protection Symposium focused on the use of digital health data in the insurance industry; changes in data sets becoming relevant to health; and ethical and privacy challenges of new data analytics.

Capturing new and personalised data sets, such as real-time monitoring of fitness and exercise data, has clear benefits for helping individuals maintain a healthy lifestyle. It marks a shift in approach from disease treatment to disease prevention.

Capturing such big data sets would also be an advantage for life and health insurers. Ongoing data analysis could enable an insurer to spot upcoming problems and advise clients to consult a doctor or adopt a healthier lifestyle. Despite inevitable false positives, this pre-emptive approach could help people to avoid sickness and could prevent claims. People who were hitherto considered uninsurable might receive cover if their data revealed full treatment compliance and positive lifestyle factors.

However, the exciting potential of big data also raises ethical questions that go beyond data protection and privacy challenges. Making sure that no individuals or groups are disadvantaged by the information coming out of big data algorithms will be very important. At present, there is widespread public reluctance to share health records beyond their doctors. The medical profession has a long history to use such data with greatest confidentiality and with due care when it comes to diagnosis and the potential impact of an analysis to the individual concerned. There are concerns about the potential misuse of health or health-related data, the use of inaccurate algorithms, false outcomes or over-diagnosis. These worries have pressed the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to focus on the governance of health or health-related data in the digital era. The new rules substantially strengthen the rights of data providers, requiring a more robust consent for specific data use. It further obliges companies to be more transparent with their use of data, its protection and accuracy. This includes the use of automated profiling and digital analytics. Much stronger enforcement and sanction powers under GDPR place data protection and privacy compliance into the boardroom. A recent survey by the IAPP suggested that 72% of companies surveyed discuss data protection at board level.

The benefits of better results using big data and smart analytics cannot be compensated by infringing with privacy rights, misusing data to the disadvantage of people or creating an unjust society. As Effy Vayena stated, ethical questions and challenges cannot be treated as an afterthought in the digital era. A sound ethical base will help generate trust in new ways of data management and analytics within the health and medical sphere.

This article is based on the "4th Swiss Re Symposium on Data Protection" event which took place on the 2 November 2016 at the Swiss Re Centre for Global Dialogue