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Info-scrubbing algorithm unveiled to protect patient privacy

Medical data without the secrets

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US researchers have devised a novel way to protect the privacy of patients whose medical histories are included in public databases and electronic medial records, according to news reports.

The method, which was unveiled Monday by researchers from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, masks parts of a patient's records that aren't relevant to a particular inquiry. By generalizing vast amounts of clinical information, patients remain anonymous while still supplying researchers with data that's relevant to a specific project or topic.

The information-scrubbing algorithm has so far withstood simulated attempts to identify the individuals using data belonging to more than 2,600 patients. The mock hack assumed the would-be attackers knew the patient's identity and some or all of the patient's itemized medical history.

"There is definitely a need to de-identify individuals," Nils Homer of the University of California at Los Angeles, told Science News. He was part of a team that demonstrated two years ago that it was possible to trace a genetic signature back to the individual even when the patient's DNA profile was buried in a pool of thousands.

The finding prompted National Institutes of Health to restrict access to genetic databases.

The abstract to full article, Anonymization of electronic medical records for validating genome-wide association studies, is here. Additional coverage is here. ®

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