Patients have mixed feelings over shared medical databases

Published: Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Maine was one of the first states to implement a converged database that shared all residents' medical files in a single location. The health information exchange is a computer network that connects even the smallest healthcare organizations in the state with large enterprise facilities.

According to BusinessWeek, the initiative was started when the Obama administration gave Maine nearly $550 million in federal grants to transform the healthcare industry. However, the implementation of a converged database did not sit well with all residents, as some fear there are inherent security and privacy risks that will expose personally identifiable and financial information.

"I sure don't want my information in that thing," Maine resident Victor Hand said, according to BusinessWeek. "I just don't think they can keep it private. If I knew for sure that nobody could get it but my doctors, then maybe I'd participate, but there's no way to guarantee that."

Another problem is that there is a lack of federal regulation regarding how to deploy the databases. As a result, states can set their own guidelines about whether to inform patients that their sensitive data is being hosted in a shared virtual environments. This means that some people are unaware such databases exist, while others are powerless to remove personal information from the system, the news source said.

Citing a report by the nonprofit EHealth Initiative, BusinessWeek revealed there are at least 255 health information exchanges throughout the United States. However, since not many people are notified of the migration of their personal information, they disapprove of the program.

"The whole system could get torn apart by the privacy issues," University of Louisville director of the institute for bioethics, health policy and law Mark Rothstein said, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. "If you don't ask people and you just do it, you're asking for trouble. It's foolish. It's a shortcut that doesn't pay off in the long run."

Another major issue is the fact that the system will provide a warehouse of information for cybercriminals to access if the system's are not properly secured. People argue that if doctors and lawyers know how to use the exchanges, identity thieves could probably learn. According to the Identity Theft Resource Center, there were more than 80 reported medical-related data breaches in 2011, exposing more than 3.7 million sensitive records.

Despite these concerns, the federal government is making plans to allow databases to communicate with one another and share information. Similar to cell phone networks, the goal is to allow individuals to move from state to state and easily transfer medical information to another exchange. The systems have a variety of benefits, including allowing physicians to look up medical records on the fly, BusinessWeek noted.

Now government officials are beginning to take steps to ensure residents and patients have the ability to choose if they wish to migrate personal data to the exchanges and have a say in updating privacy and security requirements, BusinessWeek reported. As a result, people may feel more comfortable moving medical records to the databases, especially when they are informed of the benefits, including giving multiple physicians the ability to look after sick patients, regardless of their location.

"It gives me peace of mind - tremendous peace of mind - that something's there all in one place and that I'm being looked at holistically," Maine resident Ann Sullivan said, according to BusinessWeek.