ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. Over the last decade, lawmakers and administrators have pushed hard to get doctors and hospitals to use computerized medical records. Some groups concerned about patients' privacy have pushed back equally hard. Now the federal government is gearing up a massive program to make those computerized records a reality. According to a new poll by NPR, the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health, that's all right with the public - sort of. NPR's Joanne Silberner explains.

JOANNE SILBERNER: The polls show some very mixed feelings. Fully three-quarters of those polled said it was very or somewhat important for their doctors to use electronic or computer-based medical records instead of paper files. But nearly the same proportion said they expect that unauthorized people will be able to get to those records. Jennifer Williams of Huntington, West Virginia says she's okay with the privacy issue.

Ms. JENNIFER WILLIAMS: I'm comfortable banking online. I'm comfortable purchasing online.

SILBERNER: She's about to have her third child, and her doctor keeps her records on computer. Williams says she began to appreciate the idea of widely available computerized medical records when she lived in Tennessee. Her grandma, who had cancer and was on a whole slew of medicines, came to visit her visit her from Indiana.

Ms. WILLIAMS: When she came down to Tennessee to visit, she got pneumonia. It would have been nice for the doctors in Tennessee to have access to see what's going on with her.

SILBERNER: Paul Pointdujour is more concerned about privacy concerns, but…

Mr. PAUL POINTDUJOUR: I think that's a great initiative to somehow get this broad network where privileged individuals such as doctors can look at your past history, not to mention, you know, it would reduce, you know, tons of paperwork.

SILBERNER: But in Sanford, North Carolina, Cindy Loftis(ph), who works in computers, says the possibility of identity theft is a deal breaker.

Ms. CINDY LOFTIS (Works with Computers): As we all know, people know how to hack the computers.

SILBERNER: There's been the occasional high-profile case of breached records. Unauthorized workers at UCLA Medical Center got into Britney Spears' files last June when she was hospitalized. But it's not clear whether the concerns of Loftis and some others in the poll match the actual risk. And anyway, paper records can be stolen, too, says John Halamka of Harvard University, an advocate for electronic medical records.

Dr. JOHN HALAMKA (Harvard University): You can walk into any hospital in America, put on a white jacket, grab a paper-based chart, make copies of it, look through it, no one is going to know you were there.

SILBERNER: Meanwhile, the privacy advocates who blocked earlier legislation promoting electronic health records are backing off. They're pleased with new rules and the $19 billion health information technology program included in the stimulus bill. Ashley Katz is executive director of the non-profit group Patient Privacy Rights.

Ms. ASHLEY KATZ (Executive Director, Patient Privacy Rights): I think what we got in the stimulus package was a really excellent step in the right direction. For Congress to put into law some of those protections is a huge step forward.

SILBERNER: So with the public pretty much on board, according to the poll, and privacy advocates, too, and money in the system, all that's left if for doctors and hospitals to embrace health information technology. But that may be the biggest challenge of all. Several studies have shown a lack of enthusiasm among many doctors and hospitals. They're worried about spending money on computers that they think might be difficult to use, become obsolete quickly, or break down in the middle of the day.

Joanne Silberner, NPR News, Washington.

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