Hiding patients in plain sight

Scrubbing detail could let researchers use records without privacy risk

4:42pm, April 12, 2010

A new technique allows medical records to be used for research on the genetics of disease while still protecting patients from prying eyes.

Databases that link thousands of people’s DNA profiles to their medical histories are a powerful tool for researchers who want to use genetics to individualize the diagnosis and treatment of disease. But this promise of personalized medicine comes with concerns about patient privacy. Now scientists have come up with a way to alter personal medical information so it’s still meaningful for research, but meaningless to someone trying to ID an individual in a database.

 “We’re hoping that it’s a game-changer,” says Bradley Malin, a biomedical informatics specialist from Vanderbilt University in Nashville who helped develop the method.

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