Editorial | Tell before you take

Making good use of our health data makes sense, but doing so without asking is simply bad manners

Anyone who goes into a grocery store knows – or should expect – that their purchases aren’t tallied solely for the purpose of coming up with the amount that need to be paid. Grocers and other retailers have long used information about what we buy – and when and where and how we pay – to come up with portraits of shoppers. 

That same practice is now being eyed by the state, which wants GPs to collect patient data

Few give it a second thought that the supermarket knows that people who buy wine on Tuesdays are also likely to have cauliflower and condoms in their basket. Yet the prospect of the state compiling our medical data and selling it on to drug companies for a profit somehow feels far more ominous. 

Concerns about such practices are well placed, given that the consequences of abuse are far more serious than if someone learned our shopping habits. But on the other hand, the potential gains – both personally and for society as a whole – to be made by giving researchers access to vast amounts of data are enormous. 

Add to that the prospect that the profits on the sale of the data could be used to reinvigorate a flagging health service, and it would seem that the state has most of the arguments in its favour.

While few would disagree that improved medical treatment and more healthcare funding are worth the costs of surrendering some information about ourselves, it is the potential loss of anonymity that remains a source of concern. 

However, we already surrender enormous amounts of data about ourselves to retailers, social media websites and pollsters without getting anything more in return than modest discounts or an easier way to share bad pictures. The only difference in allowing the state to collect and sell heath data is that we stand to benefit from it.

With everything the idea has going for it, the government’s biggest gaffe is that it is trying to sell our health data without telling us. There is everything to indicate that, when asked, people can see the value of handing over some of their anonymity in exchange for an improved quality of life. 

In the most recent example, a Washington Post-Pew Research Centre Poll showed that, despite the outrage over revelations that the National Security Agency’s secret surveillance programme, 56 percent of Americans still support the monitoring of their telecommunications in order to prevent terrorism. 

What officials in neither country seem to have learned is that while people can see the value of sharing, it’s bad manners to take something without asking.