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    USA Today Offers Two Views on Medical Records and Privacy

    USA Today has two editorials about electronic medical records and the privacy protections that are necessary. The subject is being heavily debated in Congress. I support strong privacy protections for medical records, especially when it comes to the sharing of patient data among doctors, pharmacies and companies.

    The Senate recently held a hearing on “Health IT: Protecting Americans’ Privacy in the Digital Age,” which includes testimony from a number of experts on the issue. A few months ago, the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit upheld (pdf) a New Hampshire state law that banned the sale of prescriber-identifiable prescription drug data for marketing purposes. Last year, California failed to pass SB1096, which would have allowed pharmacies to sell customers’ prescription data for marketing purposes.

    Privacy and medical records are also in the international spotlight. Last year, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Finnish government violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (pdf) for “domestic authorities’ failure to protect, at the relevant time, the applicant’s patient records against unauthorised access.”

    The view of the USA Today editorial board, “Don’t sacrifice privacy when digitizing medical records“:

    In the digital age, switching patients’ medical records from unwieldy paper to computerized data is a no-brainer. Electronic records make it easier for patients to keep up-to-date health data themselves; for doctors, hospitals and emergency rooms to share data; and for the health care system to provide better quality care at lower cost.

    That was the impetus for President Obama’s push to include $20 billion in the stimulus bill, passed Friday, to provide incentives for physicians, hospitals and other health providers to go digital. But the very things that make digital records so appealing — easy access, sharing and speed of transmission — make them vulnerable to everyone from snoopers and thieves to businesses that want to use your medical records for their profit.

    For the first time since digital systems took off this decade, Congress has added some strong privacy safeguards in the measure Obama is expected to sign this week. […]

    The worst fear of privacy experts is that medical data, once computerized, will go the way of financial data — something to be sliced and diced by data miners. Credit bureaus tag consumers with credit scores. Medical data in the hands of businesses outside strict privacy laws could be turned into health scores, which would follow an individual through life, leading to discrimination by employers or other punitive actions.

    That’s not a reason to shun electronic medical records. But it is a reason to be vigilant.

    The opposing viewpoint column is written by Mary R. Grealy, president of the Healthcare Leadership Council, a coalition of the chief executives of major health care companies and organizations. “Balance privacy with benefits“:

    Creating an electronic health information network carries breathtaking potential to save lives, prevent disease and bring greater cost-efficiency to our health care system. It will be a tragedy if that promise is cut short by excessive, unnecessary regulations aimed at combating hypothetical problems. […]

    For example, some interest groups want to make it more difficult for pharmacists, hospitals, drugmakers and health plans to share information that can help patients avoid adverse drug interactions, learn about disease management programs or be alerted to medicines that are less expensive or more effective. They propose requiring that individuals give explicit prior authorization each time their information is used for one of these purposes.

    Imagine the delays at your local drugstore if your pharmacist has to explain to each customer the ways in which health data may be used to make sure he’s getting the best and least expensive medications or to link him with programs to help manage his asthma or diabetes. This chaos at the counter would be the result of a core difference of philosophy. Some groups insist that having health providers share information in this way theoretically opens the door for mischief. For patients, though, information equals longer lives and improved well-being.

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