NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Medical Privacy

March 26, 2001

Many people fear the disclosure of personal medical information because they do not want others to know that they have warts or take Viagra, or have cancer, AIDS or a mental illness. But more serious consequences of such disclosure can include employers firing or refusing to hire employees with certain medical conditions or companies denying health insurance or credit. A 1996 survey of individuals with a risk of developing genetic health conditions found that 206 of the 917 respondents reported discrimination because of access to this information, including the loss of employment and health insurance.

  • The health industry warns that increased regulation that gives patients more privacy could raise health care costs and make it harder to deliver needed care.
  • But consumer advocates argue that medical privacy reforms are crucial to high quality care because people will be more willing to seek help if their worries about privacy are removed.
  • At the center of the dispute is who, if anyone, should have the right to share personal medical information without a patient's consent.

Industry groups argue that in some instances using personal information is so crucial to health care delivery that it should have an automatic exemption from any privacy rules, such as when an insurer or health plan must know the patient's name, diagnosis and services received in order to reimburse a provider or when pharmacists cross-check a patient's prescriptions for potential drug interactions.

However some consumer groups want patients to give their consent for the release of information, even for basic reasons such as paying bills.

More controversially, some would give patients the right to sue if privacy rules were not followed. Critics contend that such a right would be like writing trial lawyers a blank check.

Source: Spencer Rich, "Medicine: The Most Personal Data," National Journal, September 2, 2000.


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