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Can J Hosp Pharm. 2009 Jul-Aug; 62(4): 307–319.
PMCID: PMC2826964

Evaluating the Risk of Re-identification of Patients from Hospital Prescription Records

Khaled El Emam
Khaled El Emam, BEng, PhD, is with the CHEO Research Institute, Ottawa, Ontario
Fida K Dankar
Fida K Dankar, BSc, MSc, PhD, is with the CHEO Research Institute, Ottawa, Ontario
Régis Vaillancourt
Régis Vaillancourt, BPharm, PharmD, is with the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, Ottawa, Ontario. He is also an Associate Editor with the CJHP
Tyson Roffey
Tyson Roffey, BA, is with the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, Ottawa, Ontario



Pharmacies often provide prescription records to private research firms, on the assumption that these records are de-identified (i.e., identifying information has been removed). However, concerns have been expressed about the potential that patients can be re-identified from such records. Recently, a large private research firm requested prescription records from the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO), as part of a larger effort to develop a database of hospital prescription records across Canada.


To evaluate the ability to re-identify patients from CHEO’S prescription records and to determine ways to appropriately de-identify the data if the risk was too high.


The risk of re-identification was assessed for 18 months’ worth of prescription data. De-identification algorithms were developed to reduce the risk to an acceptable level while maintaining the quality of the data.


The probability of patients being re-identified from the original variables and data set requested by the private research firm was deemed quite high. A new de-identified record layout was developed, which had an acceptable level of re-identification risk. The new approach involved replacing the admission and discharge dates with the quarter and year of admission and the length of stay in days, reporting the patient’s age in weeks, and including only the first character of the patient’s postal code. Additional requirements were included in the data-sharing agreement with the private research firm (e.g., audit requirements and a protocol for notification of a breach of privacy).


Without a formal analysis of the risk of re-identification, assurances of data anonymity may not be accurate. A formal risk analysis at one hospital produced a clinically relevant data set that also protects patient privacy and allows the hospital pharmacy to explicitly manage the risks of breach of patient privacy.

Keywords: privavy, de-identification, re-identification risk, data anonymity, secondary use of data


Contexte :

Les pharmacies fournissent souvent des dossiers d’ordonnance aux firmes de recherche indépendantes, en supposant qu’ils sont dépersonnalisés (c.-à-d., que l’information pouvant identifier les patients a été retirée). Cependant, des inquiétudes ont été soulevées quant à la possibilité que l’on puisse reconstituer l’identité des patients à partir de ces dossiers. Récemment, une importante firme de recherche indépendante a demandé au Centre hospitalier pour enfants de l’est de l’Ontario (CHEO) d’obtenir les dossiers d’ordonnance, dans le cadre d’un projet plus vaste visant à développer une base de données pancanadienne des dossiers d’ordonnance hospitaliers.

Objectif :

Évaluer la possibilité de reconstituer l’identité des patients à partir des dossiers d’ordonnance du CHEO afin de déterminer les moyens appropriés de dépersonnaliser les données si le risque de reconstitution est trop élevé.

Méthodes :

Le risque de reconstitution de l’identité a été évalué à partir de données sur les ordonnances couvrant une période de 18 mois. Des algorithmes de dépersonnalisation ont été conçus pour réduire le risque à un niveau acceptable, tout en maintenant la qualité des données.

Résultats :

La probabilité de reconstitution de l’identité des patients à partir des variables et des données originales demandées par la firme de recherche indépendante a été jugée assez élevée. Une nouvelle méthode de dépersonnalisation des dossiers comportant un niveau de risque de reconstitution de l’identité acceptable a été développée. La nouvelle méthode impliquait le remplacement des dates d’admission et de sortie par le trimestre et l’année d’admission et la durée du séjour en jours, l’expression de l’âge du patient en semaines, et l’insertion uniquement du premier caractère du code postal du patient. D’autres exigences ont été incluses dans l’entente de transmission de données avec la firme de recherche indépendante (p. ex., des exigences de vérification et un protocole de déclaration de violation de la vie privée).

Conclusion :

En l’absence d’analyse structurée du risque de reconstitution de l’identité, il est difficile d’assurer la dépersonnalisation des données. Une analyse structurée du risque effectuée dans un hôpital a généré un ensemble de données pertinent sur le plan clinique qui protège également la confidentialité des renseignements personnels des patients et permet à la pharmacie de l’hôpital de gérer explicitement les risques de violation de la vie privée.

[Traduction par l’éditeur]

Mots-clés : vie privée, dépersonnalisation, risque de reconstitution de l’identité, anonymat des données, utilisation secondaire des données


Many retail and hospital pharmacies across Canada disclose prescription data (referred to in this article as “prescription records”) to private research firms. These firms use the records to produce reports on prescribing patterns and drug utilization1 and to perform economic studies.2 The reports are then sold primarily to the pharmaceutical industry and government agencies.

Each prescription record contains information about the prescriber and the patient, as well as the drug dispensed. It is clear that the prescribers can be identified in the prescription record. However, it has been argued that the patient information disclosed in such records is also sufficient to identify patients,35 which jeopardizes the confidentiality of Canadians’ health information.3

The Ontario Personal Health Information Privacy Act (PHIPA) defines identifying information as “information that identifies an individual or for which it is reasonably foreseeable in the circumstances that it could be utilized, either alone or with other information, to identify an individual”.6 If the prescription records cannot directly or indirectly identify patients, then there would be no legislative requirements or constraints on their disclosure, since they would not be considered personal health information, and there would be no legislative requirement to obtain patient consent to disclose the records to such a third party.

In mid-2008, a private research firm requested the pediatric prescription records of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO), located in Ottawa, Ontario. This was part of a larger effort to develop a hospital prescription record database across Canada.7 At the time the firm contacted CHEO, 100 hospitals had already agreed to be part of the program,7 and 18% of the hospital beds in Ontario were already represented.2 In return for participation in the database, the private research firm agreed to provide benchmarking capability to the participating hospitals and to allow them to use the date to conduct province-wide and national studies on drug utilization and effectiveness.

The prescription records requested from the hospital pharmacies were believed to be de-identified. The reasoning was that no directly identifying information about the patients, such as name and address, was being collected.7 However, data elements other than the name and address can be used to re-identify an individual. There are well-documented examples in which individuals have been re-identified from ostensibly anonymous data, with no names and no street address information.816 Although children may be less susceptible to re-identification than adults, the risk to this age group can still be high. Consequently, CHEO was aware that it could not assume that the data collected by the private research firm could not, under certain plausible scenarios, be used to re-identify CHEO patients.

The hospital’s administration therefore requested that a study be conducted to ensure that any and all patient information be adequately de-identified before being disclosed to the private research firm. At the same time, the hospital recognized that the risk of re-identifying patients had to be balanced against the need to perform meaningful analysis and gain the benefits of benchmarking.

Eighteen months’ worth of prescription records were used to evaluate whether the risk of re-identification was sufficiently low to justify the claim that the requested records were de-identified. The analysis was used to develop recommendations on the appropriate disclosure of prescription records to the private research firm.


Type of Re-identification Risk

To fulfill the request from the research firm, the hospital pharmacy would have to disclose prescription records to an external party. Because of concerns about patient privacy, the pharmacy had to ensure that patient information in the disclosed database was appropriately de-identified. Various degrees of de-identification may be applied in such a situation: too much de-identification may diminish the clinical utility of the data, but too little de-identification may lead to a breach of privacy.

A risk analysis was performed to determine the level of de-identification to be applied. A meaningful risk analysis requires an understanding of the nature of plausible re-identification scenarios.

An individual or entity that attempts to re-identify the records in a database, either accidentally or deliberately, is called an intruder. It is assumed that the intruder will somehow gain access to the disclosed prescription database. This access may be legitimate (e.g., if the intruder is employed by the private research firm or works at the hospital). Alternatively, the intruder may find a prescription database that has been lost (e.g., database on an unencrypted laptop or memory stick that was forgotten at an airport), the intruder may deliberately steal the database (with about three-quarters of data loss incidents being caused by sources other than the data custodian17,18), or disclosure may be compelled in a criminal or civil court case.19,20 An intruder may inadvertently re-identify a patient (e.g., an epidemiologist may spontaneously recognize a particular record while analyzing the database) or may deliberately attempt re-identification (e.g., in a court case where the intruder is an expert witness demonstrating that individuals in a database can be re-identified14,15).

For CHEO, 2 kinds of re-identification were of concern. The first type of re-identification, called identity disclosure, occurs if the intruder is able to assign a particular identity to any record in the prescription database; for example, the intruder determines that record number 7 in the prescription database belongs to patient Alice Smith. The second type of re-identification, called attribute disclosure, occurs when an intruder learns something new about a patient in the database without knowing which specific record belongs to that patient. For example, if all 20-year-old female patients in the disclosed database who live in a particular area had a prescription for an antidepressant, then if the intruder knows that Alice Smith is 20 years old and lives in that particular area, he or she will learn that Alice Smith was taking an antidepressant, even if the particular record belonging to Alice Smith is unknown.

The focus of the analysis reported in this article was on assessing and preventing identity disclosure, i.e., ensuring that an intruder would not be able to determine the identity associated with any record in the prescription database.

To re-identify a specific patient, the intruder must have some background information about that person, which the intruder then uses to look for the person’s specific record in the database. The risk of re-identification by this means is termed “prosecutor re-identification risk”.21 Variables representing a patient’s background information that is already known to the intruder are called quasi-identifiers. Examples of these quasi-identifiers are age, sex, postal code, ethnicity, race, profession, and main language spoken. An intruder who is a neighbour of the specific patient would know such details through his or her personal association with the patient. Alternatively, the background information of a famous person who is represented in the database would be available to the intruder through the public domain.

An intruder might also have background information about many patients and might attempt to re-identify any one of them, rather than targeting one specific person. In this situation, the re-identified patient is assumed to have been randomly selected. The risk of re-identification by this means is called “journalist re-identification risk”.21 In this case, the intruder needs an external database, known as an identification database,22 against which to compare the prescription database. In effect, the identification database contains background information about many patients. Such a database can be constructed from public registries.22 For patients who are youth (generally 18 years of age or younger), there are few publicly available and easily accessible government databases (federal, provincial, or municipal) containing pertinent quasi-identifiers, since they do not own property, borrow money, have telephones in their own names, or vote.22 However, the membership of sports teams is often publicly available (e.g., an Internet search using the term “youth roster birth” will generate lists of sports teams, along with dates of birth), and many of these lists contain detailed demographic information about the team members. Furthermore, youth increasingly reveal basic demographic information about themselves on blogs and social networking websites, such as Facebook.23,24 Therefore, the Internet has made it easier to construct identification databases about youth from public sources.

If the whole population of patients is considered, then prosecutor risk and journalist risk are quantitatively the same.21 The analysis presented in this paper involved the complete population of patient visits to CHEO during which prescriptions were dispensed; therefore, the analysis focused on prosecutor risk.

Risk Assessment Methodology

A flow chart for the risk assessment methodology used in this study is shown in Figure 1, and the activities are described in more detail below.

Figure 1.
Overview of the risk assessment methodology used in this study. If no additional controls can be imposed and no solution is found, then the data custodian will give up, and the data will not be released.

Determine Quasi-identifiers

Some of the key fields requested by the private research firm are listed in Table 1. The quasi-identifiers used in the risk assessment were selected from this list of variables.

Table 1.
Some of the Original Data Fields Requested from Hospital Pharmacies by the Private Research Firm

Under the re-identification scenarios considered here, an intruder would need to have background information about a patient to re-identify him or her. For example, if the neighbour is defined as the archetype intruder, the variables in Table 1 that the neighbour would know are age, sex, and forward sortation area (FSA, a geographic region in Canada where the first 3 characters of the postal code are the same for all residents). It is also relatively straightforward to get this kind of information from public registries and then to construct an identification database. A neighbour may also know roughly when the patient was admitted and/or discharged and the approximate duration of stay. The full set of quasi-identifiers that were included in the current analysis are listed in Table 2.

Table 2.
Quasi-identifiers Included in the Analysis

Determine Minimal Variable Set

A technique often used to de-identify a data set is generalization.25 Generalization means making the variables less precise. This is illustrated in Figure 2 with a generalization hierarchy for the length-of-stay variable. The greatest precision occurs at the bottom of the hierarchy, where length of stay is represented in days. The next higher level of generalization results in length of stay represented in weeks. Beyond that, lower-precision representations of length of stay would be in months and then quarters. Therefore, higher levels of the generalization hierarchy are associated with lower precision of the length-of-stay variable.

Figure 2.
Example of a generalization hierarchy for the length-of-stay variable. Higher levels within the hierarchy are associated with greater amounts of generalization. Lower levels within the hierarchy are associated with greater precision.

As data become increasingly generalized at higher levels of the hierarchy, they become less useful for data analysis. For example, if the precision of the length-of-stay variable in Figure 2 is generalized to quarters rather than days, then any effect that occurs during short stays would not be detectable. Therefore, there is a tradeoff between the amount of generalization and the utility of the data for analysis.

A consensus was reached among the key stakeholders in this data-release decision (i.e., the hospital’s director of pharmacy and chief privacy officer and the private research firm) whereby a maximum amount of acceptable generalization was determined for each of the quasi-identifiers, as presented in Table 2. According to this scheme, the generalization during the de-identification process was not to reduce the precision of the variables beyond what appears in Table 2.

Evaluate Actual Risk of Re-identification

The risk of re-identification was measured as the probability that an intruder would find the correct identity of a single record.

Consider the example in Figure 3, whereby the intruder knows that Alice Smith was admitted to hospital and therefore knows that her data are present in the disclosed prescription database. As background information, the intruder also knows that Alice was born in 1987. To re-identify Alice’s record the intruder needs to find all females that were born in 1987. However, because age was generalized to decade of birth, the intruder needs to find all records for females born in the range 1980-1989. If there are f matching records, then the probability of correct re-identification of Alice’s record is 1/f. In the example shown in Figure 3, there are 2 matches, and the probability of correct re-identification is therefore 0.5.

Figure 3.
An example of how an intruder might attempt to re-identify Alice Smith in the disclosed prescription database. The original database had 11 records. After de-identification, the full name has been removed from the disclosed records, and the date of birth ...

The records with the same combination of values for the 2 quasi-identifiers mentioned above are called an equivalence class. In this example, the equivalence class consisted of all females born in the decade 1980–1989, and the size of the equivalence class was 2.

It is not known a priori if the intruder will try to re-identify Alice Smith or any one of the other patients. For example, if the intruder had background information about John Smith, who was born in 1979, then the equivalence class {male, 1970–1979} has a size of 3, and the probability of re-identification would be 0.33. A worst-case assumption must therefore be made: that the patient the intruder is trying to re-identify is in the smallest equivalence class in the database. In the example in Figure 3, the smallest equivalence class has a size of 2. This can be expressed more formally, as follows.

The probability of re-identifying a patient in the smallest equivalence class in the database represents the overall risk for the database. Let there be j = 1 … J equivalence classes in the data, where J is the number of equivalence classes in the database, and let the number of records in an equivalence class be denoted by f j. In the example in Figure 3, J = 5 since there are 5 equivalence classes in the whole disclosed database. The overall probability of re-identification under the prosecutor or journalist scenario is therefore reported as the minimum value of 1/f j across all equivalence classes21:

equation M1

Determine Threshold for Re-identification

The re-identification probability must now be interpreted, by determining whether or not it is acceptable. This is done by comparing the actual probability of re-identification for the disclosed prescription database with a threshold value. If the actual probability is above the threshold, then the risk of re-identification is unacceptable.

In practice, quantitative thresholds are defined in terms of the smallest equivalence class sizes. When sensitive health data are disclosed, it is sometimes recommended that the smallest equivalence class have a size of at least 3,26,27 which implies a threshold probability of 0.33. More often, a minimal equivalence class size of 5 is used,2834 which implies a threshold probability of 0.2.

Apply Generalization and Suppression

De-identification of hierarchical variables is performed by means of optimization algorithms.35 Such algorithms determine the optimal amount of generalization to be performed on the data set. As part of that process, certain records are flagged for suppression. The process of suppression involves replacing some of the quasi-identifier values in these flagged records with a null value.

For the current study, a software program was developed to iteratively perform the generalization, suppression, and evaluation processes until an optimal solution was found.36 The software implemented an algorithm based on the one described by Samarati,37 but improved upon it by guaranteeing that a globally optimal solution would be found.

Evaluate De-identification Solutions

Once generalization and suppression have been performed, it is necessary to evaluate the quality of the de-identified data. An optimal de-identification solution is one that maintains the re-identification probability below the threshold while minimizing information loss.38

The Samarati algorithm37 that was applied as the basis for this analysis used a precision information-loss metric39 to measure how far the generalization had proceeded up the generalization hierarchy (an example of which is shown in Figure 2). Another popular information-loss metric used in the computational disclosure control literature is the discernability metric4046:

equation M2

However, most end-users will find both of these metrics difficult to interpret. For example, a data analyst cannot intuitively say whether the value of the precision or discernability metric is too high. Therefore, a more intuitively meaningful information-loss metric was used in the current analysis, namely, the amount of data suppression in the disclosed prescription database.

Suppression can be done at the level of a variable, a record, or a cell. Suppression of a variable removes all data for that variable from the disclosed database. This is arguably an extreme form of generalization in which the variable is generalized to a single value. Suppression of a record removes the whole record from the disclosed prescription database. Suppression of a cell takes 2 possible forms: replacing the actual values for all of the quasi-identifiers with null values or selecting the optimal cells for replacement with null values. For this study, the latter approach was used, according to an optimization algorithm.47 This is the best approximation to a globally optimal cell suppression available in the literature. The study team developed software to implement this suppression algorithm.

With cell suppression, other variables in the record (i.e., those that are not quasi-identifiers) remain untouched. For example, if the quasi-identifiers consist of age and sex, then the values for these 2 quasi-identifiers may be suppressed but the remaining variables, such as drug and diagnosis, would remain in the record. Cell suppression masks the information that the intruder needs to re-identify a record, but retains other clinical information that is useful for subsequent analysis.

In the current analysis, a maximum of 15% suppression on a single variable was deemed acceptable, as model-based imputation techniques could be used to estimate the missing values in subsequent data analysis.48 Therefore, an optimal solution had to limit the percentage of records with suppression to no more than 15%. If that condition cannot be met, then it would be necessary to increase the value of the risk threshold. Increasing the risk threshold must be balanced by imposing additional security and privacy controls on the data recipient.

Impose Controls on the Data Recipient

Because of its common use in practice, the initial probability threshold was set at 0.2. If it is not possible to obtain a good de-identification solution with that threshold, then the threshold is increased to 0.33. However, the higher probability threshold must be balanced with greater security and privacy practices by the data recipient. Appendix 1 lists the practices that need to be in place at the higher threshold.

Perform Diagnostics

Because the measure of re-identification risk considers the worst-case scenario in the data set, it is often the case that a large percentage of the records in the disclosed database have a re-identification risk well below the threshold. A useful diagnostic is the cumulative distribution of risk values. For example, if the final probability threshold were increased from a baseline of 0.2 to 0.33, examination of the distribution might reveal that 95% of the records in the disclosed database have a re-identification risk below 0.2 and only 5% have a re-identification risk between 0.2 and 0.33. Therefore, even though the threshold seems quite high, the vast majority of the records still have a probability of re-identification below the baseline value of 0.2. In practice, this pattern is common. This diagnostic is most useful when the threshold is set above the baseline value of 0.2.

Data Set Analyzed

This study used data from CHEO. Records for all prescriptions dispensed from the CHEO pharmacy from the beginning of January 2007 to the end of June 2008 (18 months) were obtained following receipt of institutional ethics approval. In total, there were 94 100 records representing 10 364 patient visits and 6970 unique patients. The unit of analysis was the patient visit.


A variety of de-identification solutions were considered (Table 3). The table shows the level of detail for each variable, as well as the percentage of records with cell suppression needed to ensure that the re-identification risk would be below the threshold.

Table 3.
Results for Suppression of Records for Different Levels of Aggregation, Assuming an External Intruder*

The first row in Table 3 (solution 1) shows the results for the fields that the private research firm initially requested. With the baseline risk threshold of 0.2, all of the records in the disclosed database would have some cell suppression. Therefore, the original data requested was clearly not de-identified, since all of the records were risky.

Solutions 2 through 5 illustrate how the extent of suppression decreases as more generalization is applied to the variables. For these solutions, the dates and postal code were generalized. The most generalized solution in this set (solution 4) would have the smallest amount of suppression. However, none of these solutions would have been acceptable because the level of suppression was still deemed too high.

Application of the optimal de-identification algorithms produced solutions 6 and 7. It was not possible to find a solution that was acceptable at a risk threshold of 0.2, and the risk threshold had to be raised. The last column in Table 3 shows the percentage of records suppressed with a 0.33 threshold.

At the higher risk threshold, solutions 6 and 7 maintained generalization below the maximum acceptable and ensured that cell suppression would be below the 15% threshold. These 2 solutions are differentiated by computation of the length-of-stay variable (solution 7) or retention of admission date (at a granularity of quarters) and discharge date (at a granularity of years) as separate variables (solution 6). Solution 7 was more useful, as it allowed for a more precise calculation of length of stay.

To manage overall risk at the higher threshold, the agreement with the private research firm stipulated implementation of the security and privacy practices described in Appendix 1, if they were not already in place.

Therefore, the following specific quasi-identifiers could be included in the disclosed prescription database:

  • sex
  • length of stay (in days)
  • quarter and year of admission
  • patient’s region of residence (indicated by the first letter of the postal code)
  • patient’s age in weeks

In addition to these 5 quasi-identifiers, drug and diagnosis information was included.

According to the optimal suppression algorithm, 678 records (6.5% of all 10 364 records) had only a single quasi-identifier suppressed, 601 records (5.8%) had 2 quasi-identifiers suppressed, and 228 (2.2%) had 3 quasi-identifiers suppressed. Only a few records had 4 quasi-identifiers suppressed, and no records had all 5 quasi-identifiers suppressed. The optimal suppression approach was a big improvement over the more simplistic approach of removing all quasi-identifiers. In the optimal solution, in which 14.9% of the records had cell suppression (solution 7 in Table 3), only 35% of the quasi-identifier cells in the flagged records were actually suppressed.

The extent of suppression varied by quasi-identifier (Table 4). The age variable had the most suppression. Therefore, any analysis using age would have 11.3% of the total data set suppressed. The least affected variable was sex, with only 1.1% of all records having that variable suppressed.

Table 4.
Extent of Optimal Suppression for Each Quasi-identifier

The 0.33 value for risk of re-identification seems high. However, this represents the worst-case scenario. In practice, many records in the disclosed database would have a smaller risk. In the current case, just under 95% of the records that would be disclosed had a re-identification risk at or below 0.2, which is the commonly used baseline risk, and 80% of the records had a re-identification risk below 0.1. The remaining records had a risk higher than the 0.2 threshold. This can be illustrated by an empirical cumulative distribution plot (Figure 4), which shows that most of the records had a low probability of re-identification.

Figure 4.
Ascending cumulative distribution plot showing the proportion of records with an actual re-identification risk below the x axis values. The proportion of records with a risk of 0.33 or less is 100%. However, as many as 95% of the records have a re-identification ...


The assessment reported here gave the hospital’s director of pharmacy and chief privacy officer an objective basis for assessing the risk of re-identification when disclosing pharmacy data to the private research firm. It was clear from this analysis that the data fields originally requested by the company would not have resulted in a de-identified data set, as was initially assumed. The conclusions from the assessment emphasized the importance of this independent analysis.

This analysis of re-identification risk using 18 months of prescription records from CHEO allowed concrete recommendations about managing this risk. Methods of risk management included generalizing the data, suppressing some cell values within the data, and stipulating additional security and privacy practices in the data-sharing agreement with the private research firm. This kind of analysis makes the tradeoffs between privacy and utility explicit and ensures that underlying assumptions are brought to the surface.

Implementation Considerations

The analysis described here would typically be performed in conjunction with the privacy office of a hospital or other health care institution. The level of analytical sophistication that privacy officers can offer is increasing, and there is growing emphasis on the privacy issues associated with secondary use of hospital data by external organizations and researchers.

If such expertise does not exist within the hospital, we recommend that it be developed. One reason for doing so is the dependence of the results of a re-identification risk assessment on the data distribution. If the distribution of patient demographics, their admission rates, and/or their length of stay changes significantly over time, the risk assessment may no longer be accurate and a new risk assessment would be required. If the expertise to perform such assessments has been developed, the hospital can undertake re-analysis whenever it is needed.

De-identifying data in the manner described here and finding an optimal solution that balances generalization with information loss necessitates a variety of software tools, specifically tools to implement de-identification algorithms. For the study reported here, the software tools were developed within the hospital.


The results presented here were obtained using a data set from a medium-sized pediatric hospital. Larger pediatric hospitals would have a larger number of admissions during a period of the same duration. In such cases, the risk assessment may allow additional precision for the same variables. Separate analyses would be needed for adult hospitals.

Rare and visible diseases present an additional risk of re-identification. Some work has already been done on identifying the rare and visible diseases that carry such extra risk.49 For example, it is possible to eliminate records with disease codes (e.g., from the International Classification of Diseases, 9th revision) that match those on the list of rare and visible diseases. However, this was not done in the analysis described here, as the list has not yet been formally published. As such, some residual re-identification risks may remain, even after addressing the risks identified here.

In the assessment of the risk of breaching privacy reported here, rarely prescribed drugs were not considered. For an intruder to use information about rare drugs for re-identification, the intruder would need to have background information on the drugs that a specific patient was taking; under the scenarios considered for this analysis, this did not seem likely. Alternatively, if a drug is known as a treatment for a rare and/or visible disease, then the fact that a patient has taken the drug would indicate that he or she has that disease. To the authors’ knowledge, no work has been done to identify the drugs commonly prescribed for the rare and visible diseases mentioned above, taking into account off-label use.


This work was partially funded by the Ontario Centres of Excellence. We thank Bradley Malin of Vanderbilt University for his comments on an earlier version of this paper.

Appendix 1.. Checklist for Security and Privacy Practices

Generalization and suppression are applied to a data set to ensure that the risk of re-identification is below the threshold. If the extent of generalization is deemed clinically unacceptable or the extent of suppression is deemed too high, then the threshold can be raised. However, if the threshold is raised, security and privacy practices must be put in place to make the higher threshold acceptable. The checklist in this appendix specifies these practices.

For example, for a particular database, assume that the probability threshold was set to the common value of 0.2. When the data were de-identified using the automated algorithm, the resultant data set had too much suppression. Therefore, the threshold had to be raised. However, doing that requires more security and privacy practices to compensate for the higher probability of re-identification with the higher threshold. For example, the recipient of the database may be required to accept surprise audits from the hospital, to implement extensive standard operating procedures related to information security, and to ensure that practices are compliant with these procedures. The risk threshold is then raised to 0.33. At that risk level, the de-identified data are clinically useful.

The checklist on page 318 (Table A1) is a summary of items directly specified in the following policies, guidelines, or application forms: Government of Canada guidelines,50,51 Canadian Institute for Health Information guidelines,52,53 Canadian Institutes of Health Research guidelines,54 Canadian Organization for Advancement of Computers in Health guidelines,55 secondary-use guidelines published by the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Science,56 and guidelines from the research ethics boards of 13 large academic health centres (Toronto Academic Health Sciences Network Human Subjects Research Application [2006], Council of Research Ethics Boards Common REB Application Form—Ottawa [2007], the University of British Columbia Office of Research Services—Investigator and Study Team Human Ethics Application [2008], Queen’s University Health Sciences Research Ethics Board [2008], University of Manitoba—Bannatyne Campus Research Ethics Boards [Biomedical and Health] [2007], Health Research Ethics Board of the University of Alberta [2008], Quebec Multicentre Project Review Application [2008], Memorial University of Newfoundland Faculty of Medicine Human Investigation Committee [2005], Dalhousie University Health Sciences Research Ethics Board [2008], McGill University Faculty of Medicine Institutional Review Board [2007], University of Western Ontario Health Sciences Research Ethics Board [2007], University of Saskatchewan Biomedical Research Ethics Board [2008], and St Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton/Hamilton Health Sciences/McMaster University Faculty of Health Sciences Research [2006]).

Table A1.

Checklist of Practices That Must Be in Place at a Higher Threshold for Re-identification Risk, as Detailed in Policies, Guidelines, and Application Forms of Various Bodies

Controlling access, disclosure, retention, and disposition of personal data100
Requestor allows only “authorized” staff to access and use data on a “need-to-know” basis (i.e., when required to perform their duties)85
Data-sharing agreement between collaborators and subcontractors has been or will be implemented23
Nondisclosure or confidentiality agreement (pledge of confidentiality) is in place for all staff, including external collaborators and contractors39
Requestor will only publish or disclose aggregated data that do not allow identification of individuals100
Long-term retention of personal data will be subject to periodic audits and oversight by independent bodies23
Data will be disposed of after a specified retention period62
Information will not be processed, stored, or maintained outside of Canada, and parties outside of Canada will not have access to the data8
Data will not be disclosed or shared with third parties46

Safeguarding personal data100
Assessment of threat and risk vulnerability has been conducted for information systems, and assessment has been conveyed to data custodianNS
Organizational governance framework for privacy, confidentiality, and security is in place at requestor siteNS
Organizational policies for data storage, management, and access are in place at requestor site15
Privacy and security policies and procedures are monitored and enforced15
Mandatory and ongoing privacy, confidentiality, and security training is conducted for all individuals and/or team members, including those at external collaborating or subcontracting sites31
Appropriate sanctions are in place for breach of privacy, confidentiality, or security, including dismissal and/or loss of institutional privileges, and these have been clearly stipulated in signed pledge of confidentiality15
Privacy officers and/or data stewardship committees have been appointed at requestor site15
Breach-of-privacy protocol is in place, including immediate written notification to data custodian8
Internal and external privacy reviews and audits have been implemented8
Authentication measures (such as computer password protection and unique log-on identification) have been implemented to ensure that only authorized personnel can access computer systemsNS
Authentication measures (such as computer password protection and unique log-on identification) have been implemented to ensure that only authorized personnel can access data69
Special protection has been installed for remote electronic access to dataNS23
Virus-checking programs have been implemented23
Detailed monitoring system for audit trail has been instituted to document the person, time, and nature of data access, with flags for aberrant use and “abort” algorithms to end questionable or inappropriate access15
If electronic transmission of data is required, an encrypted protocol will be used54
Computers and files that hold the disclosed information are housed in secure settings in rooms protected by such methods as combination lock doors or smart card door entry, with paper files stored in locked storage cabinets85
Staff have been provided with photo identification or coded card swipeNSNS
Visitors are screened and supervisedNSNS
Alarm systems are in placeNSNSNSNS
Number of locations in which personal information is stored has been minimized and specified in advanceNSNSNSNS
Architectural space precludes public access to areas where sensitive data are heldNSNSNSNS
Routine surveillance of premises is conductedNSNS
Physical security measures are in place to protect data from hazards such as floods or fire8

Ensuring accountability and transparency in the management of personal data100
Contact information and title of senior individuals who will be accountable for privacy, confidentiality, and security of data have been provided to data custodian, and requestor notifies custodian of any changes to this information
Contact information and title of senior individual who will be accountable for employees and contractors has been provided to data custodian, and requestor will notify custodian of any changes to this information
Organizational transparency and public notification plan is in place at the requestor site and is open about collection or disclosure of information, research objectives, and privacy policy and practices23
Requestor site has procedures in place to receive and respond to public complaints or inquiries about its privacy policies and practices related to the handling of personal data, and complaint procedures are easily accessible and simple to use8
Independent authority (e.g., research ethics board) has approved the proposal for secondary use of data100
Internal and/or external audit and monitoring mechanisms are in place as appropriate39
Independent advisory or data stewardship committee serves in data oversight capacity (e.g., advisory committee for defining scope and strategic priorities of research studies)31

CIHI = Canadian Institute for Health Information, CIHR = Canadian Institutes of Health Research, COACH = Canadian Organization for Advancement of Computers in Health, ICES/SDU = Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences/secondary data use, REB = research ethics board, NS = not specified (used when the source material had only an open-ended question and was not specific about what the data recipient should do; for example, the instruction “Please describe the administrative, technical, and physical safeguards that will be used to protect the confidentiality and security of data” would be designated as “NS” in this table).

*For CIHI, items reflect those pertaining to the Institute’s privacy program, not data requestors.
The COACH guidelines are for health information custodians.
All REBs require signing authority of the principal investigator, who is accountable for use of the data; however, accountability for privacy and confidentiality of data are rarely specified.


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Articles from The Canadian Journal of Hospital Pharmacy are provided here courtesy of Canadian Society Of Hospital Pharmacists