Study: Reduce Privacy Leaks to Achieve Full Potential of Electronic Health Records

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Press Release: Study Finds That Focus on Reducing Privacy Leaks Needed to Achieve Full Potential of Electronic Health Records

Citizens – not the federal government or medical institutions – should determine who can access their medical records

BOSTON – Governor Deval Patrick announced the second phase of rollout of the Commonwealth’s Health Information Highway (HIway) project earlier this month, which allows doctors across the state to access a patient’s records from anywhere. Yet numerous issues related to the privacy of patients’ data still remain unanswered.

Electronic Health Records (EHR), a technological system that allows health care providers to store and share private medical information, hold the potential to reduce medical errors, and promote efficiency, but achieving their full potential will require policy makers to focus on reducing the risk of privacy and security leaks, according to a new study published by Pioneer Institute.

Out of the Filing Cabinet and Into the Fire: How the Shift from Paper to Electronic Health Records Has Endangered Patient Privacy and Security and How to Calm the Flame

“The implementation of EHR should be patient oriented,” said Pioneer’s Senior Health Policy Fellow Josh Archambault, co-author of “Out of the Filing Cabinet and Into the Fire.” “Citizens, not the federal government or medical institutions, should determine who gets access to their records.”

Among the other recommendations from Archambault and co-author Christina England are that Massachusetts delay or reconsider a provision that would make EHR fluency a condition for physician licensure beginning next year, development of a plan to keep EHR systems financially viable after federal incentives end, and lowering the threshold for public notification when information breaches occur.

Medical records contain demographic and identity information like Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses and phone numbers that are coveted by identity thieves. “When a single credit card is sold on the black market with the full identity profile found in health care records, its value can be up to 20 times more than that of other cards,” write England and Archambault.

A 2012 RAND report found that governments may lose up to $98 billion annually to Medicare and Medicaid abuse. A significant portion of that is related to the theft of personal information from federal databases.

In Massachusetts, current law calls for physicians to achieve the first stage of what is known as “meaningful use” of EHR as a condition of licensure beginning next year. But although 93 percent of providers currently use some form of an EHR system, 62 percent of Massachusetts physicians don’t meet the standard. Computerized order entry, electronic prescribing and drug interaction checks are among the objectives included under meaningful use.

The federal and state governments are both currently spending vast amounts of money to encourage EHR adoption. Providers must develop a plan to maintain and update systems once the federal dollars are gone.

Finally, England and Archambault recommend that Massachusetts follow the federal Department of Veterans Affairs’ lead when it comes to reporting information protection incidents. The VA reports them on a daily basis and each incident is examined by an independent privacy breach analysis team to see how a repeat of the breach can be avoided.

Massachusetts’ Health Information Exchange is legally obligated to report breaches of unsecured medical records if over 500 people are affected. England and Archambault recommend that the number for public reporting be reduced to 100 or even 25.

About the Authors:

Christina England is a graduate student at the University of Maryland, earning a Masters in Public Policy. She graduated from the United States Air Force Academy in 2012 with a BS in Biochemistry, and is now a second lieutenant in the Air Force.

Josh Archambault is a Senior Fellow at Pioneer Institute. Prior to joining Pioneer, Josh was selected as a Health Policy Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. Josh served as a Legislative Director in the State Senate and as Senior Legislative Aide in the Governor’s Office of Legislative Affairs. Josh holds a Masters in Public Policy from Harvard University’s Kennedy School and a BA in Political Studies and Economics from Gordon College.

Pioneer Institute is an independent, non-partisan, privately funded research organization that seeks to improve the quality of life in Massachusetts through civic discourse and intellectually rigorous, data-driven public policy solutions based on free market principles, individual liberty and responsibility, and the ideal of effective, limited and accountable government.