Your Privacy and Preserving The Personal Touch in Mental Health Care

Your Privacy and Preserving The Personal Touch in Mental Health Care

By Keith Norris

The expanding role of online mental health support offered by firms like BetterHelp, merits some critical inquiry. These companies took advantage of the relaxed regulations around mental health care during the COVID pandemic resulting in some serious ethical breaches. Your public health data is strictly confidential and protected under privacy laws like the Canada’s Personal Health Information Protection Act (PHIPA). Under very few circumstances is to be shared without your explicit consent.

Your Personal Health Information Is a Commodity.

The US Federal Trade Commission alleges that between 2017 and 2018, BetterHelp uploaded millions of its user’s email addresses to Facebook/Meta, which in turn matched them to millions of their user’s IDs, “linking their use of the service for mental health treatment with their Facebook accounts.” The whole time BetterHelp advertised compliance with privacy laws. Subsequently this particular company has agreed to pay out close to $8 million in refunds to clients whose private and personal information was sold to Meta, Snapchat, Criteo, and Pinterest for the purpose of targeted advertising.

“Personal information” may be “health information” simply due to the nature of the product or service. Generally speaking, an email address might not be considered “health information” – unless, of course, the source of the information is a health-related service. In the case of BetterHelp, most people visited the site to seek mental health assistance. Therefore, just the fact that BetterHelp, Pride Counseling, or Faithful Counseling was the source of their email or IP address revealed highly sensitive information to third parties. The message for others in the industry: Context counts”.

Insurance companies typically mine data from a variety of sources, including medical records, claims data, pharmacy records, and, increasingly, wearable technology data. They may also use information from online activities and social media to assess risk. In the age of information commodification – if data related to your subscriptions to online mental health services is sold to social media platforms and is not adequately protected, it could make its way to insurance companies or large employee recruitment firms. This could affect insurance rates, coverage, or employment opportunities. The actual practices and data management of platforms like Facebook/Meta have been the subject of much scrutiny by regulators.

The “Uberization” of Mental Health Support

The “Uberization” of online mental health platforms refers to applying a similar model like Uber’s to mental health services. It means utilizing technology to provide on-demand, accessible services directly to consumers. However, inherent to the tech space is the trend of rapid consolidation where larger companies frequently acquire smaller startups and competitors. This consolidation of even the most well-intentioned online health care startups could lead to a homogenization of care, where unique client needs may not be adequately addressed. Moreover, it means bypassing traditional industry methods and safeguards that disrupt established professional standards. This often results in therapists being underpaid and potentially less qualified, which can diminish the quality of care provided. In other words, this consolidation, driven by economic goals, might ultimately disadvantage both the therapists and the clients they serve.

You Get What You Pay For

Despite the convenience and cost-effectiveness of digital platforms, they often fall short in maintaining care continuity and safeguarding privacy, potentially leading to lessened positive outcomes for your investment. The pandemic has necessitated that established mental health support providers adapt to technologies in order to expanded online mental health support. This brings aid to those with ambulatory issues or with anxieties and phobias that make leaving their house significantly uncomfortable. This means that access to a stable client/therapist relationship, where your privacy is prioritized, is more accessible that ever.



“FTC says online counseling service BetterHelp pushed people into handing over health information – and broke its privacy promises”

“BetterHelp shared users’ sensitive health data”

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