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Your data for sale?

Partners Healthcare, the giant of the Boston medical world, is studying a plan with other big academic hospitals elsewhere to sell aggregated patient data to the government, pharmaceutical and biotech companies, insurers, and publishers. ''As the adage goes, 'Information is power, and power is money,' " notes a confidential Partners' document outlining the ''data commercialization project."

Partners executives say no decision has been made to go ahead with the project. ''It is still in the brainstorming stages," says Partners chief operating officer, Tom Glynn. They are sensitive to concerns about patient confidentiality, and say the most likely first customer would be government agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration. As an example, they say data collected by the hospitals could have been used by the FDA to correlate the use of Vioxx and the incidence of heart attacks.

But the confidential outline makes clear Partners sees the market as much broader. ''This project offers the opportunity to understand how various enterprises (government, pharma/biotech, consulting/analysis firms, investment analysts, publishers, etc.) utilize healthcare data to achieve their goals," the memo states.

Among the information available in Partners' ''data warehouse": patient demographic data; diagnoses and procedure data; inpatient pharmacy data; and ''assorted data" on inpatient hospitalization and clinical encounters, including provider information.

The project would likely put the nonprofit Partners in competition with companies such as Subimo, Ingenix, and HealthGrades that provide data for insurance companies and others. In its memo, the Partners Healthcare Business Development Group, which is running the project for Partners, emphasizes Partners' size as an advantage. Partners, which runs Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham & Women's Hospital, declined to identify the others considering the project.

This month the state put on hold its own plans to sell data to researchers, insurers, and companies that could be used to analyze individual physicians' track records. Partners was among those that objected to the state's plan, arguing there were too many problems with the data. The state's plan to sell data differs from the Partners approach in that it would have identified doctors; Partners is considering offering only aggregated patient data. The state says it still hopes to move ahead with its plan.

Chris Colecchi, Partners vice president of research ventures and licensing, emphasized that the project is preliminary. He is aware of concerns about patient confidentiality. ''We would never do anything that would compromise the confidentiality of patient data," he says. ''We know we would be held to the highest standards."

. . . Neighborhood news: Speculation is running high at the Boston Herald that publisher Pat Purcell is close to a deal to sell his suburban newspapers, the healthiest part of his company. ''There is not a deal," Purcell told me. ''There is nothing to comment on." The most likely buyer, said executives at other newspaper companies, is a private equity firm. One industry executive said he had been told that one buyer was close to a deal last week to acquire both Purcell's chain of 100 suburban dailies and weeklies and also the Patriot Ledger of Quincy and the Enterprise of Brockton. Both are owned by Heritage Partners, a Boston buyout firm. The executive put the price of the deal, if completed, at $370 million to $400 million. Purcell would continue to own the Boston Herald under this scenario. Another executive said Purcell continues to explore alternatives. One newspaper executive who considered the Purcell properties put revenues at the Herald and the suburban papers at about $100 million each last year. The suburban papers, however, showed an operating profit of about $20 million; the Herald lost about $2 million, the executive said. Heritage Partners did not return a call.

Steve Bailey can be reached at bailey@globe.com or at 617-929-2902.

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