HHS Aims to Adopt Electronic Medical Records

Published July 1, 2007

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is working on ways to adopt a national electronic medical records (EMRs) infrastructure within a year, while still trying to ensure patients’ privacy. Many privacy advocates, however, remain skeptical.

At press time, the American Health Information Community’s (AHIC) Electronic Health Records Workgroup was scheduled to meet May 22 to develop a plan that would allow EMR adoption within a year. AHIC is a federal advisory body that makes recommendations to HHS on ways to accelerate the development and implementation of health information technology strategies.

Establishing protocols for the protection of personal electronic health data is a key aspect of President George W. Bush’s call for a secure nationwide health information technology network. In three consecutive State of the Union addresses, Bush noted electronic medical records save time and expressed the hope that speedy data retrieval could save patients’ lives.

“We will make wider use of electronic records and other health information technology to help control costs and reduce dangerous medical errors,” Bush said in this year’s State of the Union message.

Risking Privacy

The HHS assessment is the result of a Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigatory report released February 17 that raised concerns about the government’s strategy for protecting the security of citizens’ health data.

The GAO investigation, initiated after Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-HI) expressed concern that the Bush administration was not doing enough to protect confidential health information, confirms that while HHS has begun to address health technology issues and enact some of the GAO’s earliest recommendations, “a secure and effective structure for the management of citizens’ health data has yet to be implemented,” according to the report.

“HHS has defined initial criteria and procedures for certifying electronic health records, resulting in the certification of 35 IT vendor products. In January 2007, HHS contractors presented four initial prototypes of a Nationwide Health Information Network (NHIN),” the report’s authors wrote.

Developing Strategies

But “other contracts have not yet produced final results. Additionally, HHS has not accepted or agreed to implement the recommendations made in June 2006 by the National Committee for Vital and Health Statistics”–a public advisory body to HHS–the report said. Twila Brase, president of the Citizens’ Council on Health Care (CCHC)–a free-market group based in Minnesota–has long been skeptical of data warehousing initiatives. While the GAO report identifies important steps to secure health data, she said, it doesn’t address the issue of consent–a component she feels is essential to privacy.

“The bottom line is that there is no privacy in this debate,” Brase explained. “This is really all about security. The GAO is calling privacy security, and I would contend that it isn’t really privacy because there is no consent.”

Going Public

Despite those reservations, the CCHC “is not entirely opposed to electronic medical records,” Brase said. But she stressed that all choices regarding the exchange, sale, or updating of personal medical information should require the individual’s expressed consent.

“We think the public really needs to think twice before they think about a single, lifelong, or online record,” Brase said. “The public needs to be able to determine what they want to parse out and what they want to keep to themselves.”

David Salvo ([email protected]) writes from Indiana.

For more information …

The February 2007 report of the U.S. Government Accountability Office, “Heath Information Technology: Early Efforts Initiated but Comprehensive Privacy Approach Needed for National Strategy,” by Linda D. Koontz and David A. Powner, is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to http://www.policybot.org and search for document #21275.