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Senators press telehealth companies to protect patient data


Four lawmakers have sent letters to three companies expressing their concerns and asking what they are doing to ensure private information isn’t given to advertisers.

A group of Democratic and Republican senators are pressing telehealth companies to do more to protect patient information.

U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), and Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) are speaking out about telehealth companies and their use of patient data. They said they are concerned about the companies sharing that data with social media platforms such as Google and Facebook, which they said use the information to target advertisements.

The four senators wrote letters to the heads of three telehealth companies: Cerebral, Monument, and Workit. All three telehealth companies provide behavioral health services.

The lawmakers note that tens of thousands of Americans have used their websites.

“Recent reports highlight how your company shares users’ contact information and health care data that should be confidential…this information is reportedly sent to advertising platforms, along with the information needed to identify users,” the senators wrote.

The senators wrote in the letters that patients are asked questions about their mental health, such as depression or anxiety. The lawmakers said that while the website claims the information will remain confidential, the data is sent to advertising platforms, including information that could potentially identify patients.

“This data is extremely personal, and it can be used to target advertisements for services that may be unnecessary or potentially harmful physically, psychologically, or emotionally,” the lawmakers wrote.

The senators asked the companies to outline the steps that they are taking, or will undertake, to protect patient information. They also ask the firms to provide information on any third parties that may have received information from the telehealth companies that could be used to identify patients.

The lawmakers note the expanded use of telehealth, and its value in expanding access to care in rural areas and underserved communities.

“This access should not come at the cost of exposing personal and identifiable information to the world’s largest advertising ecosystems,” the senators wrote.

A Cerebral spokesperson said the company will respond to the senators’ letter.

"We take patient privacy very seriously and share the Senators’ thoughts about the importance of privacy of patient information,” the Cerebral spokesperson wrote in an email. “We are working diligently to answer their important questions and are in the process of responding. We remain committed to working with other responsible parties to establish clear guidelines concerning the evolving technologies that improve the delivery of mental health care.”

A Workit Health representative said the company is responding to the senators' letter, and said the lawmakers' interest in the issue should spur more discussion about standard industry practices.

"At Workit Health, protecting our members’ privacy is and always has been one of our most important priorities. We appreciate the Senate’s attention to the way tracking technologies are used in digital health, as privacy is a core part of our ethos, and one of the reasons our co-founders created a discreet, online program," the spokesperson said.

Cerebral provides mental health services through telehealth. Monument provides online treatment for alcohol use, while Workit Health offers services for addiction via telehealth.

Last August, Klobuchar and U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., introduced legislation to prohibit the use of Americans’ personal health data for commercial advertising.

Some health systems, including Advocate Aurora Health, Novant Health, Community Health Network, and others have said some patient information has been transmitted to other companies due to tracking technologies from Facebook and Google. Many hospitals, and businesses of all kinds, use pixels to track user trends and preferences.

The government enacted waivers allowing the expanded use of telehealth early in the COVID-19 pandemic. In the $1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill, Congress and President Biden agreed to extend waivers on telehealth through 2024.

Many patients have turned to telehealth for behavioral health, as well as primary care and specialty care. A recent Epic Research study found that many patients who received telehealth didn’t need a follow-up appointment in person.

Healthcare leaders have said telehealth can be especially useful to help patients access mental health services, given the shortage of clinicians in many areas. Researchers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health said telehealth has helped reduce the risk of overdoses in the COVID-19 pandemic.

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