NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Keeping Medical Records Private May Be A Lost Fight

March 23, 2000

Privacy advocates are deeply concerned that the fast-growing practice of communicating patients' medical records between doctors, pharmacists, insurers, marketers and employers has made a shambles of the traditional privacy ethic regarding medical confidentiality.

"In many respects, the battle for health privacy has already been lost," says Robert Gellman, a privacy consultant and member of the National Committee on Vital and Health Statistics.

In February, for example, medical records of several thousand patients at the University of Michigan Medical Center were inadvertently placed on the Internet and sat there for two months until the error was discovered. The files included names, addresses, Social Security numbers and other data.

In the absence of federal regulations to protect the privacy of medical information, there are a few actions individuals may take to try to safeguard their files:

  • Patients should review the fine print in doctors' authorization forms and request a revision of the forms if the provisions are deemed unsatisfactory.
  • Consider paying cash for treatment or pharmaceuticals so that no information is transmitted to an insurer or third-party bill collector.
  • In the 28 states that give patients a legal right to their own records, patients should request a copy.
  • Watch out for surveys, health screenings and "sweepstakes," since they can be used to gather patient information.

Source: Julie Appleby, "File Safe?" USA Today, March 23, 2000.


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