Sorrell vs. IMS Health: Not a Privacy Case

The Supreme Court’s decision in Sorrell vs. IMS Health is being touted in many quarters as a privacy case, and a concerning one at that. Example: Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) released a statement saying “the Supreme Court has overturned a sensible Vermont law that sought to protect the privacy of the doctor-patient relationship.” That’s a stretch.

The Vermont law at issue restricted the sale, disclosure, and use of pharmacy records that revealed the prescribing practices of doctors if that information was to be used in marketing by pharmaceutical manufacturers. Under the law, prescription drug salespeople—“detailers” in industry parlance—could not access information about doctors’ prescribing to use in focusing their efforts. As the Court noted, the statute barred few other uses of this information.

It is a stretch to suggest that this is a privacy law, given the sharply limited scope of its “protections.” Rather, the law was intended to advance the state’s preferences in the area of drug prescribing, which skew toward generic drugs rather than name brands. The Court quoted the Vermont legislature itself, finding that the purpose of the law was to thwart “detailers, in particular those who promote brand-name drugs, convey[ing] messages that ‘are often in conflict with the goals of the state.’” Accordingly, the Court addressed the law as a content- and viewpoint-oriented regulation of speech which could not survive First Amendment scrutiny (something Cato and the Pacific Legal Foundation argued for in their joint brief.)

What about patients’ sensitive records? Again, the case was about data reflecting doctors’ prescribing practices, which could include as little as how many times per year they prescribe given drugs. (They probably include more detail than that.) The risk to patients is based on the idea that patients’ prescriptions might be gleaned through sufficient data-mining of doctors prescribing records (no doubt with other records appended). That’s a genuine problem, if largely theoretical given the availability and use of data today. Vermont is certainly free to address that problem head on in a law meant to actually protect patients’ privacy—against the state itself, for example. Better still, Vermonters and people across the country could rely on the better sources of rules in this new and challenging area: market pressure (to the extent possible in the health care area) and the (non-prescriptive, more adaptive) common law.

Whatever the way forward, Sorrell vs. IMS Health is not the privacy case some are making it out to be, it’s not the outrage some are making it out to be, and it’s not the last word on data use in our society.