Preserving temporal relations in clinical data while maintaining privacy.

Hripcsak G, Mirhaji P, Low AF, Malin BA
J Am Med Inform Assoc. 2016 23 (6): 1040-1045

PMID: 27013522 · PMCID: PMC5070517 · DOI:10.1093/jamia/ocw001

OBJECTIVE - Maintaining patient privacy is a challenge in large-scale observational research. To assist in reducing the risk of identifying study subjects through publicly available data, we introduce a method for obscuring date information for clinical events and patient characteristics.

METHODS - The method, which we call Shift and Truncate (SANT), obscures date information to any desired granularity. Shift and Truncate first assigns each patient a random shift value, such that all dates in that patient's record are shifted by that amount. Data are then truncated from the beginning and end of the data set.

RESULTS - The data set can be proven to not disclose temporal information finer than the chosen granularity. Unlike previous strategies such as a simple shift, it remains robust to frequent - even daily - updates and robust to inferring dates at the beginning and end of date-shifted data sets. Time-of-day may be retained or obscured, depending on the goal and anticipated knowledge of the data recipient.

CONCLUSIONS - The method can be useful as a scientific approach for reducing re-identification risk under the Privacy Rule of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and may contribute to qualification for the Safe Harbor implementation.

© The Author 2016. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Medical Informatics Association. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email:

MeSH Terms (9)

Confidentiality Data Anonymization Electronic Health Records Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act Humans Methods Observational Studies as Topic Time United States

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