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Anonymizing Health Data by Luk Arbuckle, Khaled El Emam

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Chapter 9. Geospatial Aggregation: Dissemination Areas and ZIP Codes

Where patients live, where they get treatments or consultations, where they get their prescription drugs, and where they get lab tests all constitute geospatial information. And most, if not all, of this information is usually found in health databases. Even if location is missing from a data set, it can sometimes be reverse engineered or found elsewhere quite easily. If the name of the health care provider is included but location (i.e., the place of service) is missing, a simple search in the yellow pages can often get an adversary this information. Or the location of service can be found through professional bodies—the address of a physician’s practice is usually available through the college if you know her name or National Provider Identifier (NPI).

Warning

Location information about patients and their providers can be used to re-identify individuals. In fact, location is often one of the critical pieces of information for a successful re-identification attack. This means that when we de-identify a data set, we need to look at the risks posed by ZIP codes and postal codes and find ways to reduce these risks.

Also keep in mind that location information is often critical for a lot of analytics.[67] Patients showing up at an emergency department with gastrointestinal problems might be from the same neighborhood or school. Maybe they all ate a bad batch of Atlantic herring at the cafeteria. In a public-health context ...

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