The Washington Post has a story on the debate over health information technology and privacy questions concerning digital medical data.
The Senate and House appear headed for a clash over competing visions of how to protect the privacy of patients’ electronic medical records, with the House favoring strict protections advocated by consumer groups while the Senate is poised to endorse more limited safeguards urged by business interests.
President Obama has called creation of a nationwide system of electronic medical records fundamental to health-care reform, and both chambers of Congress have included about $20 billion to jump-start the initiative as part of their stimulus bills. But as with much in the stimulus package, it is not just the money but the accompanying provisions that groups are trying to influence. […]
At the heart of the debate is how to strike a balance between protecting patient privacy and expanding the health industry’s access to vast and growing databases of information on the health status and medical care of every American. Insurers and providers say the House’s proposed protections would hobble efforts to improve the quality and efficiency of health care, but privacy advocates fear that the industry would use the personal data to discriminate against patients in employment and health care as well as to market the information, often through third parties, to generate profits.
Resolving these competing visions will be the task of House and Senate negotiators. The outcome could determine, for example:
- whether a hospital or doctor can make a profit by selling people’s medical data, without their consent, to pharmaceutical companies for research;
- whether a hospital or other provider must obtain patient consent before sending them fundraising letters.
Neither version is perfect, both business and consumer groups say. But where the House bill expands a patient’s right to know who has been given access to his health information, the Senate would defer that issue to the Health and Human Services secretary. And an effort in the Senate to require health-care providers to notify patients if their records were unintentionally disclosed has been blocked.
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.