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Americans Split On Privacy Risks Vs. Benefits Of E-Health Records

The idea of E-health records raise privacy and data security concerns, enough to cause some people in a recent survey to say they won't disclose necessary information to health care providers.

While the federal government is investigating ways for most Americans to have electronic medical records within 10 years, a new survey indicates that Americans are sharply divided about whether the benefits of E-health records outweigh privacy risks.

The findings of the new study were part of testimony given on Wednesday by an information privacy expert before the National Committee on Vital and Health Statistics of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The testimony came during government hearings on "Privacy and Health Information Technology."

The privacy expert, Dr. Alan Westin, professor of public law and government emeritus, Columbia University, and director of a new program on IT, health records and privacy at nonprofit think-tank Center for Social and Legal Research, told the committee that 48% of American adults believe the benefits to patients and society of a digital patient record system outweigh risks to privacy. However, nearly the same percentage--47%--say the privacy risks outweigh the expected benefits. Four percent say they aren't sure.

The phone survey of 1,012 adults in early February, conducted by Harris Interactive, was commissioned by Westin to prepare for his testimony before the committee.

Westin, who is the author of two books on privacy, was asked to appear at the hearings to discuss current public attitudes toward health care and privacy in the context of IT applications and programs to develop a national electronic medical record system.

Of those surveyed, only 29% of Americans were even aware that there was a national electronic health record program under way.

In a phone interview with InformationWeek, Westin says he isn't surprised that more Americans haven't heard of the national effort to build electronic medical records systems. That's in part because "so far it's been loosey-goosey, something that's expected to unfold in 10 years," and "not yet gripping or filled with controversy." Also, he says the subject has "not yet been spotlighted" in national media, despite President Bush's mention of the effort in his last two state of the union addresses.

In his testimony before the committee, Westin said the survey also found that between 62% and 70% of adults are worried about sensitive health information possibly leaking because of weak data security; that there could be more sharing of patients' medical information without their knowledge; and that computerized records could increase rather than decrease medical errors.

The survey also found that some people say they won't disclose necessary information to health care providers because of worries that it will go into computerized records; and that some believe existing federal health privacy rules will be reduced in the name of efficiency.

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