Monday, February 25, 2008

Health Records Systems Expose Private Health Information

We all consider our healthcare information to be extremely personal and expect the government to protect it from falling into the wrong hands. The World Privacy Forum has published two new documents, a legal and policy analysis of the privacy issues in Personal Health Records (PHRs), and a consumer advisory about the serious privacy risks some PHRs pose.

This from Pam Dixon of the World Privacy Forum: "Much of the discussion around PHRs has been oriented toward how they benefit consumers, with almost no meaningful or detailed discussion of the privacy risks. As a result, few consumers have the ability to make genuinely informed decisions about these tools. For example, many consumers assume that because a PHR involves health-related information, that special privacy protections must apply. However, there are different varieties of PHRs and PHR companies, some of which do not fall under the federal privacy rules that are usually applied to health information."

Computer World Reports on the new study:

In some cases, people whose health care information is stored in online personal health records (PHR) systems may be exposed to serious data privacy risks, according to a warning issued by a privacy advocacy group.

That's because not all PHR systems are covered by the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the World Privacy Forum said in a 16-page report released today (download PDF). The WPF contended that as a result, many of the privacy protections offered under the HIPAA statute don't apply to the personal health care data being maintained in such systems.


But people need to be aware that the systems may fall outside of HIPAA's protective umbrella, said Pam Dixon, the group's executive director. The HIPAA privacy rules cover health plans, doctors, hospitals, clinics, nursing homes and even researchers working with medical data collected from those entities, she said. But commercial PHR systems maintained by IT vendors or services providers and supported by means such as advertising may not come under HIPAA's purview, according to Dixon.

And even in cases in which a PHR system is covered by HIPAA, there are circumstances under which an individual's medical records may not be protected, Dixon said. For instance, she pointed to medical information that a person puts into the PHR system on his or her own behalf.

There are several problems that could result from the lack of privacy protections, Dixon said. For starters, she claimed, health records could lose their privileged status if a patient authorizes a doctor to send a copy of the information to a PHR system that isn't covered by the HIPAA mandates.

"Many consumers have this deeply held belief that their health information, no matter where it travels, is protected in the same way as when you have a doctor/patient relationship," Dixon said. In reality, consenting to have data transmitted to a non-covered system likely would be viewed as an indication that you had waived your privacy privilege, she added.

Health information stored in commercial PHR systems is also less protected against subpoenas than it otherwise would be, Dixon asserted. Under HIPAA, if someone seeks to subpoena medical records about an individual from a covered entity, the patient has to be informed first. But that protection doesn't apply to PHRs in all instances, she said.


Even more worrisome to Dixon, though, is the potential for protected medical information stored in PHRs to be used for marketing purposes. HIPAA explicitly prohibits such uses, but the terms under which many PHR systems are operated could enable their owners to sell personal health data to marketers, she said.

People should be aware of such issues when choosing whether to use PHR systems, Dixon said. She added that the operators of PHR systems should be required to clearly disclose whether they are covered under HIPAA and what sort of privacy protections they offer.

Click here to read the article in its entirety.

1 comment:

Ben Wright said...

Maybe "terms of use" could help patients protect the privacy of their health records.