In Plain English: WebMD’s Privacy Policy Says Blog and Community Posts ‘Open to the Public’

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In its multi-pronged, in-depth privacy policy, WebMD shares how it uses and discloses information about you — and the truth may surprise you.

In one particular section in Part 4 (D. Community, Health Communities, Blogs and other Public Forums), it calls attention to what users need to understand about chatting online, blogging about health topics, and sharing personal details in public forums. While it may seem obvious, any information shared is open to the public and is not private.

So the next time you log on to WebMD to post questions for experts to answer, or want to leave a message in a moderated discussion, be aware that “what you post can be seen, disclosed to or collected by third parties and may be used by others in ways we cannot control or predict, including to contact you for unauthorized purposes. As with any public forum on any site, the information you post may also show up in third-party search engines like Google, Yahoo, MSN, Bing, etc.”

Yes, that even means a third-party company could associate your “anonymous” username (i.e., “NurseJackie100”) with the personal email account you used to create your WebMD account.

In yet another section in Part 5 (WebMD Health Manager – Registration, Use and Tools, including Personal Health Record), it says “WebMD Health Manager allows you a secure place to store your Personal Health Information and provides tools and services in order to better manage your health and the health of your family. WebMD Health Manager requires additional registration whether you access it through (i) WebMD, (ii) your employer’s Web site or (iii) your healthcare sponsor’s website.”

Also check out Section E within Part 5 (Interactive Tools on WebMD Health Manager) to learn how your information is stored — and shared with others. It’s within Section E that the policy says certain “tools can store Personal Health Information coming from third party data interchange agreements between your employer, health plan, pharmacy benefits manager and other third parties that provide data interchange services. We maintain and limit the use of that information to the Opt-in permission you have provided at the time you use the tool.”

In plain English, the two italicized sections above means WebMD wants access to your information so it can tailor relevant information to you — but also so it can sell that information to third-party sites. The less-than-transparent phrase here is “data interchange agreements” — what does that mean for your privacy? For example, how does that affect the privacy between you and your employer-sponsored health plan?

If you’re really worried, the section above is also where WebMD tells you — in less-than-simple terms — that you do have the option of choosing whether or not you wish to receive emails, reminders, and news from third-party companies.

The WebMD Health Manager email service requires an “opt in” or “opt out” authorization from you to make the change. You can do this by clicking on the settings tab on your Health Manager home page and changing your email preference.

Where do you fall on the online privacy spectrum? Are you someone who wouldn’t bother with this “opt out” step? Are you someone who personalized the site right away the first time you used WebMD? Or are you someone who prefers to avoid sites that monitor your health likes, dislikes, and other medical history altogether?

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Elaine Rigoli

Elaine Rigoli is PRIVATE WiFi's manager of digital content strategy.