Home Blog Faculty spotlight: Dr. Michael Zimmer on data ethics in health care

Faculty spotlight: Dr. Michael Zimmer on data ethics in health care

March 21, 2022
Dr. Michael Zimmer Marquette Faculty Spotlight

Written in the 5th century BC, the Hippocratic Oath is considered one of the first ethical codes documented for professionals in the field of medicine.1 Since its creation the Hippocratic Oath has been revised and several new oaths for physicians and others in health care have been produced but several core tenets remain from the original: to provide only beneficial treatments, to work to advance scientific knowledge, to refrain from judgment and to respect the humanity and confidences of all patients.

Presently, at Marquette University, Michael Zimmer, Ph.D., brings forward the ancient philosophy of Hippocrates’ to protect patient privacy as a data ethics scholar, focusing on digital privacy & surveillance, the ethics of big data, internet research ethics, and the broader social and ethical dimensions of emerging digital technologies. As an Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science, Dr. Zimmer teaches several courses centered around these topics including Ethical and Social Implications of Data, one of the required computer science courses for the online Master of Science in Health Care Data Analytics (HCDA) curriculum.

“While many disciplines have a long history of grappling with research ethics and submitting their work for review by ethical review boards, there’s a new generation of computing and data scientists who lack this history and might fail to fully recognize the need for robust ethical deliberations when all they are processing is ‘data,’” Dr. Zimmer explains, “Many of us in the data ethics space have been working hard to try to address all these issues, and this is one of my primary focuses in the work I’m pursuing at Marquette.”

An interdisciplinary approach to data science

Dr. Zimmer’s educational background may not strike you as a common one for a computer science department but Zimmer says one of his key strengths is his interdisciplinarity. As he describes, “I really enjoy bringing different communities of scholars and disciplines into conversation with one another to help achieve a shared goal.” As an undergrad Dr. Zimmer earned a Bachelor of Business Administration in Marketing from the University of Notre Dame and then proceeded to earn a Master’s in Media Ecology and a Ph.D. in Media, Culture and Communication from New York University, where his dissertation explored how values are embedded in technical systems.

“My early work led me to think more broadly about how technologies have social and ethical implications for society. From an early focus on digital privacy, my research trajectory seemed to follow wherever the controversies soon sprang up: privacy on Google; concerns over Facebook and social media; the emergence of the Internet of Things and smart devices; and now big data and artificial intelligence,” Zimmer says. “I feel lucky to be able to bring my social science and human-centered methodological framework to the Department of Computer Science to help our students gain critical insights about the social and ethical dimensions of the tools and systems they will be building and implementing.”

Big data in health care

Some HCDA master’s students may enter the program with previous experience as nurses, technicians or other health care roles where their work involved data in a direct patient care setting. While they will be familiar with the The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) and their role in protecting patient health information, technology is rapidly outpacing law. Dr. Zimmer’s course will help students from all backgrounds to understand their responsibilities as data scientists and the broader ethical and social implications of our data-driven society, including potential unexpected outcomes of data models, algorithms, and related systems.

“The past few years have been riddled with controversies–data breaches, collecting and sharing user data without consent, biased algorithms– and the computing industry must rethink how it manages big data in a fair and ethical manner,” Zimmer advises, “Some companies are making positive moves, including hiring more social scientists to join their data teams, and even hiring “ethics officers” to help guide product development. But the challenge will be how to ensure these roles are empowered within organizations.

The challenges facing ethical health care data usage

As a data analyst, you can harness the wealth of health care data to improve patient wellness, inform clinical practice and patient care coordination, reduce fraud, and drive the effective use of resources and cost control. But with big data comes big responsibility. For one thing, health information is extremely valuable beyond its implications for improving the field: on the black market, a single health care data record may be valued as much as $250.2 Further, for tech giants with access to troves of consumer information, health information could be given tremendous value in other questionable ways. Consider Google’s Project Nightingale, a data processing endeavor that was announced in 2019 and created in partnership with Ascension, a Catholic chain of more than 2,000 hospitals, doctors’ offices and other facilities. The partnership does have the potential for positive applications of health care data analytics, like suggesting further testing and flagging the need for intervention of narcotics misuse. However, as the Wall Street Journal observed, the huge amount of information Google already possesses on its users makes it likely that even with deidentification of health data, the Silicon Valley company could theoretically re-identify patients with the combined data. The combination of data also presents the opportunity for Google to monetize data by selling actuarial tables to insurance companies, for example, “predictions on when a white male in his 40s with certain characteristics might be likely to get sick and expensive.”3, 4

Although it might feel risky, Project Nightingale is compliant with HIPAA. Individuals often don’t have a good idea about what sorts of regulations exist to protect them and what the extent of those regulations are. Similarly, Dr. Zimmer explains that there’s been a huge growth in datasets about people’s lives and activities that are often collected without them knowing, putting most of the onus on corporations with a lot to gain, to do the right thing. “Developers have easy access to huge amounts of transactional data, clickstreams and cookie logs, as well as pervasive data from social networks, mobile phones, and Internet of Things devices,” he says, “Such practices are testing the ethical frameworks and assumptions traditionally used by researchers and ethical review boards to ensure adequate protection of human subjects.”

Studying health care data analytics

Grounded in Marquette’s Jesuit mission of service and social justice, students in Dr. Zimmer’s courses learn through engaging with the multitude of ethical and social issues that emerge throughout the data lifecycle, including how data is collected, stored, shared, and analyzed, and consider these issues across various data-rich contexts, including law enforcement, education, health care, and the workplace. In his course, Ethical and Social Implications of Data, Dr. Zimmer guides his students through discussions about use of data but also hones in on the limitations and unequal impacts means of data collection can have.

When it comes to health care data collection, Dr. Zimmer explains that the movement towards “a great ‘datafication’ of our bodies,” we risk narrowing our scope of data to only what can be easily collected and measured by devices like smartphones and fitness trackers and neat data that is easily stored in databases. Zimmer explains, “Digital phenotyping has great potential, but is there information not being captured and thereby ignored if we shift our focus to wearable rather than traditional patient interactions?” He also pushes his students to consider the danger of furthering inequalities through data collection, asking questions like: who is left out of the wearable ecosystem, whether they don’t have the resources or the technical skills to participate in the quantified self movement and how would that affect conclusions based on that data?

Launch your dynamic career at the intersection of health and data technology

Data analysts are currently ranked first among roles identified as increasing in demand within health care organizations.5 The field is in great need of principled, intelligent professionals to delve into data and extract its full potential. At Marquette, you’ll form a well-rounded understanding of the health care environment as well as build a solid foundation of data science skills and critical thinking through a lens of ethics. The result is a division of professionals ready to transform health care. “Our graduates will stand out among their peers by their ability to identify and critically engage with ethical and social implications of data experienced in their careers,” Zimmer declares. With more than 28,000 jobs seeking professionals with advanced HCDA skills,6 now is the time to get started on your online Master of Science in Health Care Data Analytics. Apply today.

  1. Retrieved on March 1, 2022, from britannica.com/topic/Hippocratic-oath
  2. Retrieved on March 1, 2022, from securelink.com/blog/healthcare-data-new-prize-hackers
  3. Retrieved on March 1, 2022, from wsj.com/articles/google-s-secret-project-nightingale-gathers-personal-health-data-on-millions-of-americans-11573496790
  4. Retrieved on March 1, 2022, from wsj.com/articles/your-health-data-isnt-as-safe-as-you-think-11574418606
  5. Retrieved on March 1, 2022, from weforum.org/reports/the-future-of-jobs-report-2020
  6. Retrieved on December 2, 2021 from Burning Glass, Last 12 months, Nationwide, Program of Study: Master’s Degree – Medical Informatics