Benefit Flexibility
| Feb 03 2022

Privacy in an Increasingly Connected World

Elizabeth Zech
Principal, Mercer Health

The pandemic has made it necessary to keep closer tabs on those we interact with, both at home and at work. Apple and Google, in an Android/iPhone collaboration we never saw coming, put together a Bluetooth-based application that tells you if you have been exposed to COVID. Many contact-tracing vendors pivoted from safety and security incident tracking (think chemical spills and top-secret files) to tracking badge swipes and geo-fenced proximity tracking via an app.

At the same time, there are mixed messages coming from the government about where to draw the line between work and private life. Last month, when the Supreme Court blocked OSHA’s Emergency Temporary Standard for mandatory vaccination or testing (which has now been withdrawn), stating that it posed “a significant encroachment into the lives – and health – of a vast number of employees.” 

So where does all this leave employers hoping to support their people with virtual health services that necessarily extend into their (somewhat) private lives? If the pandemic has pushed your health program further into the world of online health, it might be time to pause and consider the implications for employee privacy. Some food for thought:

  • Virtual care isn’t going away. Telehealth utilization skyrocketed in 2020. At one point almost a third of office visits were delivered via this modality, compared to less than 1% prior to the pandemic. While utilization rates have cooled as we have begun to resume in-person interactions, they remain significantly higher than in pre-pandemic times – especially for behavioral health services provided via telehealth. 
  • The metaverse has set its sights on health. You may have heard about real estate in the metaverse as perhaps the only place millennials can manage to buy a home these days -- but VR companies like XR Health are hoping to build virtual clinics there that bring treatment for chronic conditions into your home (or, if you are Medivis, into the operating room). 
  • Providing valuable online experiences – without becoming Big Brother. We want our experiences in healthcare and beyond to be personalized and custom, but some are worried that our bodies will become the next data frontier for big tech. It’s one thing for an employer to track your online activity over the course of a day to provide you with information you can use to better manage your time – which might include spending less of it online. But now imagine a virtual meeting where your employer can track your eye movements to gauge if you are paying attention. Many might feel that crosses a line.

The big picture

Online privacy in America, to put things mildly, is the Wild Wild West. Cybersecurity fears are on the rise and the right to disappear is not yet guaranteed in the United States. Regulators and interest groups are working hard to establish some rules of engagement, but as usual, tech incubators are moving faster than government policy. Only time can tell if the latter will catch up to the former, given so many competing priorities. But employers can (and should) establish or confirm their own privacy principles and work with vendor partners to ensure they are upheld. 

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