MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Hospitals and health plans collect lots of our medical data. That data is being used more and more for research that can lead to new discoveries. When those discoveries then form the basis for moneymaking products and companies, it raises this question. Who should own our medical data? Here's NPR's Richard Harris.
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: This isn't just a hypothetical question. When Steven Petrow was 26 years old back in 1984, he was treated for testicular cancer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.
STEVEN PETROW: At that time, I know a lot of lymph nodes and other bodily parts were removed from me and didn't really pay attention to where they went.
HARRIS: So he read with alarm a recent article in The New York Times that the cancer center had decided to grant exclusive access to scans of its vast pathology collection to a private for-profit company, presumably including his own tissue samples and his anonymized medical record.
PETROW: And it made me really wonder, first of all, where are they? Do they belong to me? Do they belong to the hospital? Do I have any rights over them? Should I have been notified - and so on and so forth. And the fact that it might have been commercialized, monetized - that's deeply upsetting.
HARRIS: Companies are exploiting medical data to develop new drugs, devices and algorithms to help diagnose disease and to help future patients. Had they asked his permission, he says, he would have granted it provided he was assured of his privacy.
PETROW: But the answer is absolutely yes. I want my body parts to be used to help others.
HARRIS: And if this is being done for - by a profit-making enterprise, would you expect a cut, or would that be OK by you that...
PETROW: Yes, I've always wondered how much that testicle was really worth.
HARRIS: It seems like a laughable question because patients don't see a share of the billions of dollars made off of information like this. But does it have to be that way? Attorney Jodi Daniel says state laws are clear on one point.
JODI DANIEL: The health care provider owns the data.
HARRIS: Federal law which she helped write way back in 1996 says that the health care providers can't out-and-out sell the data. But from there, the rules get blurry. Daniel says, for example, a doctor can use it for research or to improve health care operations.
DANIEL: If he's trying to use your information in order to develop a product that he can then sell and make millions of dollars off of, that might not be a health care operation. But there isn't a clear interpretation at this point.
HARRIS: And there's growing concern about issues of privacy and ownership. Milind Kamkolkar, chief data officer at the drug company Sanofi, says it's already difficult to track the many murky transactions having to do with people's personal medical data.
MILIND KAMKOLKAR: Sometimes it just feels as though it's blood diamonds in the world of data sharing where we can't really track how that data came through, but someone's making money off this and making an incredible amount of money off this. Personally, I think there are going to be regulations as we start waking up to this phenomenon.
HARRIS: He says companies like his seeing big changes ahead would be willing to pay something for data if that gave them clear rules about how they could use it. And there are now companies springing up to explore this idea. One, which Kamkolkar advises, is called Hu-manity.co. CEO Richie Etwaru says his long-term goal was to make medical data a person's legal property, take it away from the current system.
RICHIE ETWARU: The data's being used without being classified as property and without explicit consent and authorization. And as a result, there's this whole gray area about can you really make billions of dollars from a discovery that came from me?
HARRIS: Etwaru's company has just rolled out an app that would let people specify how their medical data can and cannot be used. People still won't own their data, but they can agree to do business with companies who want a more explicit agreement about how it can be used. Companies could potentially pay each user $10 a month for access to their data, Etwaru says. Hu-manity.co is framing its for-profit business as a fight for a new human right. Michael DePalma is the company president.
MICHAEL DEPALMA: The data absolutely has a fair value. It has a real market value. It's a $60 billion business right now just in medical data. So why should we not have some component of that?
HARRIS: And they say they are taking one key step - building a technical framework to make these transactions possible. Richard Harris, NPR News.
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