Medical websites, including those run by some hospitals and doctors, are passing on information about visitors’ online behaviour to commercial companies, according to research by current affairs show Zembla.
Sites such as psychischegezondheid.nl, where people can take a test about depression, are among those collecting sensitive information, Zembla said. The Addthis and Sharethis social media buttons also include tracker codes.
The websites contain tracking codes which can allow third parties to deduce what diseases people have and when they have hospital appointments, the programme said. Some sites had up to 16 trackers.
The programme’s researchers also discovered that information about visitors to health websites is up for sale in the US, allowing advertisers to target potential clients directly. For example, a company named Exact Data is offering the contact details of 2,856 people who use natural medicines and over 23,000 people who have been on a diet.
Because many medical companies contract third parties to build their websites, they are not aware what information is being collected and sold, the programme said.
The TweeSteden hospital in Tilburg, for example, had 16 trackers, including Addthis. The tracker can follow who visits which clinic to make an appointment – information which is commercially useful.
‘Everyone who works in healthcare knows you have a confidentiality agreement,’ said Jacob Kohnstamm, chairman of the Dutch privacy watchdog. ‘They should have been aware of this sort of situation.’
This scandal shows the importance of privacy issues in healthcare information,’ said former surgeon Hans Flu, founder of healthcare professional platform MDLinking.com, which is independent and has no commercial links. ‘Hospitals, medical societies and doctors should never get mixed up with deals which could compromise patient details for profit.’
‘The main goal should be providing evidence-based quality of care, and not damaging the confidence of the patients in the healthcare system,’ he said.
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