Making Your Medical Records Safer

PHOTO: Admission clerk Joan Vest is refiling and degitalizing the medical records of patients at Spanish Peaks Family Clinic in Walsenburg, Colo. on March 9, 2011.

Last month, the Health Insurance and Medical Privacy Act, or HIPAA, made your electronic medical records a lot safer. As welcome as these changes are, we need to go further. It is time for a federal law requiring encryption of any database that contains personally identifying information (PII).

Despite the lunacy now emanating from our nation's capital, despite the insane games of brinksmanship in Washington, I truly do believe the failure to encrypt personally identifiable information is of critical importance to the well being of Americans, and it's an issue we need to deal with right now.

A movement has been growing for some time now in the health care industry — a traditionally paper-based world is being converted into a digital one where electronic health records, or EHRs, rule the day. The push to digitize health records is picking up speed for a reason: it's good medicine. It saves money, and it saves lives. In some professions, missing a key detail might cost you a contract or a client; in medicine, it can mean losing a limb or a life. EHRs give an entire medical team — doctors, nurses, anesthesiologists, radiologists, pharmacologists —access to accurate, timely data about a patient, making it easier to communicate instructions, test theories, question assumptions, spot anomalies, correct errors. It helps to ensure that the right medications are administered in the right dosages. It puts the patient's whole medical history within easy reach. It simply makes sense.

But digitization has its downsides. The networked access that makes EHRs so convenient for medical teams also leaves them vulnerable to abuse by hackers and insider thieves. To a criminal, a patient's most sensitive PII, financial account data and insurance information can be used to open fraudulent accounts, obtain medical treatment, turn a quick profit on the black market, or commit crimes in their name. Whether by hacking a network, planting an employee or stealing a laptop, this new kind of criminal knows how to get their hands on this data, and the incentive is huge. And as we roll out the technology to implement the Affordable Care Act — with millions of Americans signing up for the first time — attempts to find and exploit weaknesses in the system are bound to increase.

While the federal government offers incentives to health care providers for deploying electronic health records systems (and penalties if they haven't by mid-2015), patients aren't so sure they want their health data digitized in the first place — and while patients may not be up to speed on all the details, they do know enough to be nervous. A new survey by Xerox, a leader in the digitization of medical data, suggests that consumers are edgy over EHRs. While 62 percent of those surveyed think EHRs will reduce health care costs and 73 percent see them improving quality of care, fully 83% are worried about security and privacy related issues — and 68 percent don't want their health records digitized at all.

Not Encrypted? Not Secure.

That's where encryption must come in. It is an indispensible tool for securing patients' electronically stored and transmitted data. It is so fundamental, in fact, that even though it has not been strictly "required" by HIPAA and HITECH — laws that establish regulatory frameworks to govern the handling of sensitive health-related data — it is, as a practical matter, impossible to comply with HIPAA regulations without using encryption.

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