Employers Track Women’s Health Data with Pregnancy Apps
A smartphone app that simultaneously markets itself to women (as a fertility, pregnancy, and post-partum health tracker) and to employers (as a tool that can track employee health and wellness while lowering their healthcare costs) has drawn criticism from privacy advocates about the sensitivity of the data it shares and aggregates.
The app, called Ovia, offers daily financial discounts on baby-related products such as diapers and formula, in addition to its primary purpose, which is helping women determine when they are most fertile and offering advice around every stage of pregnancy. The Washington Post examined how gaming technology firm Activision Blizzard provides the app to employees as a benefit. The company’s human resources representatives monitor employee utilization of the app through an online portal that provides the data on a deidentified basis. Human resources staff can see detailed data about employee struggles with infertility, menstrual cycles, miscarriages, and more.
Privacy advocates argue there are plenty of reasons women should be skeptical of sharing this data, Washington Post reported.
“The fact that women’s pregnancies are being tracked that closely by employers is very disturbing,” said Deborah C. Peel, a psychiatrist and founder of the Texas nonprofit Patient Privacy Rights. “There’s so much discrimination against mothers and families in the workplace, and they can’t trust their employer to have their best interests at heart.”
In its marketing materials and public statements, Ovia argues that using the app is a way to help companies “cut back on medical costs and help usher women back to work. Pregnant women who track themselves, the company says, will live healthier, feel more in control and be less likely to give birth prematurely or via a C-section, both of which cost more in medical bills—for the family and the employer,” the Post reports.
Like other wellness apps, Ovia’s developers tout its HIPAA compliance and their deidentification methods. But studies have shown that reidentification methods aren’t impossible.
Privacy advocates pointed out that deidentification is by no means a guarantee. “The trackers’ availability in companies with few pregnant women on staff, they say, could also leave the data vulnerable to abuse,” according to the Post article. “Ovia says its contract prohibits employers from attempting to re-identify employees.”