Remote healthcare shouldn’t breach personal privacy, says Cavoukian

Remote healthcare technologies will become increasingly important as Canada’s ageing population chooses to live at home instead of checking in at the seniors’ home.

But those technologies must be built to protect individual privacy, says Ontario’s Privacy Commissioner.

What may have once seemed like a futuristic idea is today taking shape. Seniors are living alongside technologies that monitor their actions and alert caregivers in case of an emergency. These technologies enable the aged to live comfortably at home and lift a burden from the public healthcare system. They often can also be less intrusive than the constant interference of family members or health practitioners.

But intrusion into personal privacy is exactly what concerns Ann Cavoukian.

The commissioner issued a report with Intel Corp. and General Electric (GE) Healthcare Nov. 2 calling for such technologies to be designed with privacy in mind.

“We thought we should get ahead of the curve on this,” says Michelle Chibba, policy director at the Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner’s Office. “We want to reach out to these companies and make sure they really understand privacy by design.”

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Health information is considered particularly sensitive, she adds. If it is being collected by a third party, there is immediate concern it could be at risk or even abused.

Sensor-based technologies that track a person’s location could be helpful to caregivers. An alert could be sent if a senior isn’t getting out of bed at the usual time, or hasn’t been moving around the home as much as usual. At the same time, that information is giving away the senior’s location.

Likewise, biomedical information such as heart rate, blood sugar levels and other factors could be turned into personally identifiable information.

This is Chibba’s concern.

“It’s the profiling of people, especially without their knowledge,” she says. “You would assume that because you’re in your home, you would have privacy.”

Toronto’s Baycrest facility is a research centre on ageing, and includes a 472-bed nursing home. The centre is currently in talks with vendors to put in place pilot programs to test certain remote healthcare technologies.

The pilot program would involve some sort of sensor technology, says Terrie Tucker, director of e-health at Baycrest.

“We’ve got an ageing population and an ageing workforce as well,” she says. “I think these technologies will probably save us from just investing in more hospitals and long-term care facilities.”

GE’s QuietCare system is put forward as an example of a system with built-in privacy by the report. The system consists of a series of sensors that wirelessly transmit binary signals to a base station. That information is encrypted and sent via telephone lines to a dedicated server.

By comparing signals over time, the system can detect patterns in a senior’s behavior. But information transmitted is completely anonymous.

“They are only sending a ping to the base station,” Chibba says. “It’s not ‘Ms. Jones just got out of her bed and fell’, there’s minimal transmission.”

The paper was written to encourage remote healthcare technology manufacturers to build in privacy by design, she adds. It is also meant to inform end-users who might use the system in a home, or in a seniors care facility.

“Privacy should be the default,” Chibba says. “Build it right in to the technology so the individual user doesn’t have to worry about opting in or out.”

Baycrest will reference the report when pursuing its pilot programs, Tucker says. But she wonders if all healthcare facilities will be able to do the same.

“We should be designing systems with those checks and balances built in,” she says. “But in our current world, we’re working with a lot of legacy systems that haven’t been built in.”

Baycrest will ensure new systems have privacy by design as it purchases them, Tucker says.

How remote tech can help

The Privacy Commissioner’s report highlights several categories of technology designed to help seniors live in their homes safely. They include:

  • Medication assistance: providing automatic guidance to help seniors take medication properly could save a huge costs. Imagine an electronic caddy that organizes medications and dispenses them at the proper time, giving an audio prompt. It could alert caregivers if medication isn’t taken properly.
  • Telehealth: some doctor’s office visits could be replaced by combining phone and Internet information targeted specifically for data received from physiological monitoring equipment.
  • Social connectedness: For those with dementia and Alzheimer’s, it’s important to maintain social links. A display attached to the telephone could show the picture of a family member when they phone, and text could explain the relationship.
  • Sensor technologies: Instruments that can measure some characteristic and then display or transmit that data elsewhere could have a myriad of uses. They could track the seniors’ movements around a property, monitor vital signs, or detect a pillbox being opened.

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Brian Jackson
Brian Jackson
Editorial director of IT World Canada. Covering technology as it applies to business users. Multiple COPA award winner and now judge. Paddles a canoe as much as possible.

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