Health Inc.

Patient Confidentiality Can Walk Out The Door With Laptops

If there's one thing you don't want people snooping on, we'd guess it's your medical records. But with more and more files going electronic, the potential for breaches keeps growing.

Toy soldiers in front of a laptop. i
Toy soldiers in front of a laptop.

Hospitals, insurance companies, doctors and dentists are supposed to safeguard your confidential information. Now the same federal stimulus law that's making billions of dollars available to foster the computerization of files is also making it easier to find out when there are screw-ups.

When the folks in charge of the records find there's a breach that affects more than 500 people, the feds post the report online. You can find the latest rundown here.

A lot of the breaches were attributed to lost or stolen laptops. Hackers also created some trouble. But there were also some cases of problems with paperwork being stolen or handled improperly in the mail.

Insurer AV Med saw the theft of two company laptops from corporate offices in Gainesville, Florida, last December. According to the Gainesville Sun, this theft compromised the personal information of more than 200,000 individuals. But the risk of identify theft was nonetheless low because the data on the computers was randomly listed.

The Carle Clinic in Illinois saw the theft of old X-rays intended for recycling, affecting roughly 1,300 people. A clinic spokeswoman told the News-Gazette newspaper the stolen images didn't have enough information on them for patients to worry about identity theft. The thief was apparently more interested in the money to be had for the silver contained in the images.

While the thefts and slip-ups may not always cause trouble, privacy concerns remain an important part of the debate over the switch to electronic records.

Computerized records can make things run more smoothly, but they are more susceptible to theft and hacking than old-fashioned paper files. After all, a thief can get the information on tens of thousands of patients simply by walking off with a laptop. You'd need a truck to cart away that much paper? (The New York Times ran a succinct list of benefits and concerns last March.)

As Fred Schulte, senior reporter for the Huffington Post Investigative Fund told NPR last year, "The privacy issue is huge."

A study in the January Journal of the American Informatics Association noted that privacy concerns are especially important among mental health professionals. Almost two-thirds of responding psychiatric clinicians were less likely to record highly confidential information via electronic records that could then be shared than on paper.



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