While electronic medical records promise massive opportunities for patient health benefits and reductions in administrative costs, the privacy and security risks are equally huge.
The Obama administration has set an ambitious goal--to get electronic medical records on file for every American by 2014. The administration is offering powerful incentives: $20 billion in stimulus funds as per the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009, and stiff Medicare penalties for healthcare providers that fail to implement EMRs after 2014.
EMRs offer tantalizing benefits: Improved efficiency via the elimination of tons of paper files in doctors' offices, and better medical care through the use of the same kinds of database and data mining technologies that are now routine in other industries. One example: EMR systems can flag symptoms and potentially harmful drug interactions that busy doctors might otherwise miss.
But the accompanying privacy and security threats are significant. When completed, the nation's EMR infrastructure will be a massive store of every American's most personal, private information, and a potential target of abuse by marketers, identity thieves, and unscrupulous employers and insurance companies.
Regulators are attempting to craft rules that would unlock the benefits of EMRs while protecting Americans from the security risks. Healthcare IT pros will be required to implement systems and business processes that conform to these regulations, or face lost funding, institutional fines -- and, in some cases, personal criminal penalties.
The new regulations come as the healthcare industry faces big privacy problems, going back years. In 2003, a medical transcriptionist in Pakistan threatened to post patient records from the University of California San Francisco's Medical Center on the Internet unless she was paid for her work for a transcription service company hired by the university.
The dispute was resolved, but in the meantime, patients had no idea their records were being sent overseas. In another breach, two computers that held the confidential records of close to 200,000 patients of a medical group in San Jose, California, were posted for sale on Craigslist.org. The FBI recovered the information and the medical group informed current and former patients of the theft, according to a 2006 report in the HIPAA Bulletin.