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Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Veterans Affairs use new metadata technique to exchange substance abuse records without compromising patient privacy.

Neil Versel

September 24, 2012

1 Min Read

Two federal departments have successfully demonstrated secure sharing of personal health information by meta-tagging it in electronic health records for special handling. The exercise was developed as part of the Data Segmentation for Privacy (DS4P) Initiative, which applies specific standards to cordon off sensitive elements of an EHR. Privacy concerns from patients and from mental health professionals, who are not eligible for Meaningful Use incentives, have long posed a stumbling block to implementing and sharing complete EHRs.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) exchanged the data following standards identified by the DS4P, which formed in response to a 2010 report from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) that called for a "universal exchange language."

Although the VA has had other health information exchanges with other government agencies--specifically the VA and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a unit of HHS--this was the first time it was able to use such segmentation technology, in this case to share the substance abuse treatment record of a mock patient.

SAMHSA tagged the record with privacy metadata that electronically explained to the VA's EHR that information pertaining to treatment for substance abuse could only be used for authorized purposes and required patient consent for further disclosure, according to HHS. This privacy safeguard is expected to remove a major stumbling block to wider EHR adoption in mental health and in treatment of substance abuse and sexually transmitted diseases.

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About the Author(s)

Neil Versel


Neil Versel is a journalist specializing in health IT, mobile health, patient safety, quality of care & the business of healthcare. He’s also a board member of @HealtheVillages.

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