States’ Selling, Sharing of Hospital Discharge Data Risky, FTC Warns

May 12, 2014 in News

Thirty-three states sell or share de-identified hospital discharge data that are potentially vulnerable to re-identification, according to the Federal Trade Commission, Health Data Management reports. 


Nearly all states collect such de-identified hospital discharge data, which can include:

  • Diagnostic information;
  • Expected source of payment;
  • Patient demographic data;
  • Treatment information; and
  • Total charges.

Such data allow for health care-related comparisons across regions and states.

FTC Concerns

FTC Chief Technologist Latanya Sweeney said that many states make less sensitive versions of “public use” data available to the general public. However, she warned that the de-identified data can be combined with other publicly available data to identify individuals.

According to the FTC, private companies, not researchers, are the top obtainers of state health data.

Sweeney noted that obtaining hospital discharge data often requires little or no review by the state and that the use of such data is subject to few restrictions.

She said, “For $50, we went to the state of Washington, and we purchased their hospital discharge data for year 2011.” She noted that researchers were able to correctly match 43% of news articles about accidents that contained words such as “hospitalization” or “hospitalized” with the state’s discharge data to identify individuals (Slabodkin, Health Data Management, 5/12).

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