HealthVault: The Food critic never took a bite.

I hope I have made my case that “patient privacy” is complex enough that merely “Recognize that patients have the right to medical privacy” is the ethical equivalent of saying “When considering the medical ethical issue of abortion , you must recognize that often women want to get pregnant and have a child.” This is a great example of a statement that sounds good, is completely true, and yet gets us nowhere.

Generally all of the “Patient Privacy Principles” have this problem. They are great principles but when you get deeper, to the level that is required when implementing software, it is obvious that they are only useful in spirit. For instance.

“Deny employers access to employees’ medical records before informed consent has been obtained”

Sounds good right? But does that mean that you will require consent to inform the employer of a workers compensation injury status? Doesn’t the employer have the right to know the ongoing status of a workplace injury without repeated informed consent? What, exactly does informed consent mean? When was the last time you started a new job and did not sign all of the fifteen CYA forms that you employer put in front of you? Does that count as informed consent? Again, obviously the spirit of the law here is good, which is something like “the employers should not be able to discriminate against employees based on health information” but that does not cut it when making software, we have to actually determine exactly what system will do and what it will not do, in order to write software.

So are the Privacy Principles flawed? Only when their interpretation is left to a private company with no possible way for patients to review how the code actually works!

Deborah Peels endorsement of Microsoft’s HealthVault is the equivalent of a food critic looking at a magazine food ad to make a recommendation for a restaurant. Have you ever looked at those ads when you were really hungry, you see the roasted turkey browned to perfection with a pat of butter slowly melting on it. Looks delicious! It is impossible to make that photograph with food that also tastes good. Food photographers work all day on food photographs, they cannot afford to have food that changes in appearance over the course of an hour. Can you imagine trying to include a fresh bowl of guacamole in a picture with ten other foods? Long before the picture was ready the guacamole would look disgusting. That beautiful turkey browned to perfection is actually a frozen turkey that has had the skin “browned” using a paint remover gun. The pat of butter… well, lets just say its not butter. I know this might seem obvious, but in order to judge the quality of food, a food critic must actually taste the dish.

There is no way that Dr. Peel can verify one way or another that HealthVault works the way Microsoft says it does. For instance, it would be trivial for every new piece of data for every patient to be automatically emailed to Bill Gates, or Fred Trotter. That “email the record” functionality would change nothing in the appearance of the user interface that Dr. Peel evaluated (I assume she looked at the interface). The only way to sort this out is to examine the sourcecode. Any competent Computer Scientist would acknowledge that this is trivially true: obviously it is not what Microsoft says that matters, nor is it what the software appears to do! What matters is what the software actually does and the only way to determine this, one way or another is to read the sourcecode. There is a long and glorious tradition in the software industry of shall we say “fudging” what the software actually does for marketing purposes. Is Dr. Peel qualified to examine this source code vs. marketing material gap? More on this issue later.

-FT

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