The Privacy Scare Game

The op-ed piece by Deborah Peel, who heads the Coalition for Patient Privacy, that appeared in The Wall Street Journal this week received an inordinate amount of attention.  That’s because Matt Drudge of the popular Drudge Report website seized upon the Journal’s headline, “Your Medical Records Aren’t Secure” and listed it among several other stories critical of President Obama’s healthcare plan.

But Dr. Peel’s op-ed wasn’t criticizing the President.  The targets of her op-ed included hospitals, pharmacies, employers and a litany of others who are out to plunder our personal medical records for financial gain.  And, she alleges, these violations of confidentiality are even easier and more likely when health records are maintained electronically instead of on paper.  She insists that the answer lies in giving patients the responsibility to decide what information they choose to share with medical professionals and what to keep secret.

Dr. Peel’s logic train goes off the tracks rather quickly.  First of all, it’s simply not true that electronic records are less secure than paper ones.  In her op-ed, she chooses to not acknowledge the role HIPAA privacy laws have played in keeping health information confidential.  She ignores the new laws adopted earlier this year that strongly encourage encryption of electronic data and that impose new criminal and civil penalties for privacy violations.  And you would never know from the op-ed in the Journal that hospitals, insurers and physicians throughout the country have taken extraordinary steps to safeguard patient data.

So we can see that any privacy “crisis” is overblown.  The greater problem lies in the proposed solutions.

Giving patients the responsibility to decide which portions of their medical records should be open to healthcare professionals is, at best, unreasonable and, at worst, potentially deadly.  It is highly unlikely that a patient without a medical background can make a sound decision on what information a physician might need to provide quality treatment.

But an even greater potential harm lies in the society-wide impact of ill-advised patient consent proposals.  Enabling system-wide picking and choosing of what data enters the flow of essential information will have an impact on the many beneficial actions that are dependent upon information collection and analysis, such as:

•       Reporting and tracking incidences of disease for public health purposes
•       Monitoring the quality and safety of medical products
•       Carrying out product recalls
•       Medical research into lifesaving cures and treatments.

Our health system has dual objectives in this regard.  We need to protect patient confidentiality while, at the same time, preserving the vital flow of information that protects, extends and saves lives.  Some, as Dr. Peel’s op-ed demonstrates, lose sight of the need to maintain that balance.  The fact is, though, that you should never have to choose between privacy and excellent healthcare, and we don’t have to.