They say "loose lips sink ships," but most of us are probably too young to remember the meaning of that ubiquitous slogan from World War II. The phrase warned Americans to be cautious about discussions that might jeopardize the security of the country's fighting forces overseas.
The phrase couldn't be more timely, however, as consumers flock to the World Wide Web for health information. They are doing so with confidence that the technology connecting consumers, physicians, payers and other players will protect the confidentiality of user information.
However, new research shows medical Web sites frequently share the visitor information they collect with other companies, often in violation of stated privacy policies.
By using bits of code that identify the user's computer and sometimes selling demographic information on visitors to other companies, Web surfing can become a very public experience--even when the user believes he is acting anonymously, according to research conducted by the Health Privacy Project at Georgetown University.
Concern over credibility of information also is growing. A survey of 600 southeast Michigan consumers by healthcare information company Medstat revealed that only 29% of those surfing the Internet have a high level of trust in the health information they find there, and just 59 percent have only a fair amount of trust in what they find.
Some leaders of the Internet world are taking steps to address the issue. At least two groups, one a coalition representing 16 of the largest healthcare Web sites, the other a broader-based confederation, are drafting ethical principles dealing with site content, advertising and privacy issues of health-related Web sites.
Such guidelines must provide more than platitudes--they must help guide implementation of credible and enforceable information protections. Failure to assure that physicians are comfortable using the technology of the Internet and encouraging patients to come along could doom the promise of a healthcare information age.