Junkfood Science: Electronic medical records may not be as safe as we believe

January 06, 2007

Electronic medical records may not be as safe as we believe

You’ve heard of Identity Theft, but Medical Identity Theft can be even worse for your health. Imagine getting the wrong type of blood, treatment for a disease you don’t have or a medication you are allergic to because the hospital is using someone else’s records.

A disturbing report appears in the January 8th edition of Business Week describing the growing problem of Medical Identity Theft. It is a cautionary story for anyone considering volunteering medical information for an electronic database.

According to this report, law enforcement authorities complain that many healthcare facilities do too little to protect their patient data and computer data. One federal investigator said: “You’d be astonished how many people have access to your medical records.”

Diagnosis: Identity Theft

For $60, a thief can buy your health records—and use them to get costly care.
Guess who gets the bill.

When Lind Weaver opened her mailbox one day in early 2004, she was surprised to find a bill from a local hospital for the amputation of her right foot...After weeks of wrangling with the hospital's billing reps, Weaver finally stormed into the facility and kicked her heels up on the desk of the chief administrator. “Obviously, I have both of my feet,” she told him....The nightmare didn't end there. When Weaver was hospitalized a year later for a hysterectomy, she realized the amputee's medical info was now mixed in with her own....“I now live in fear that if something ever happened to me, I could get the wrong kind of medical treatment,” she says.

...Based on Federal Trade Commission surveys, Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, a San Diego-based research group, estimates that more than 250,000 Americans have had their medical information stolen and misused in recent years. ...[L]aw enforcement authorities say that more and more frauds are being perpetrated by organized crime rings who steal dozens, and sometimes thousands, of medical records, as well as the billing codes for doctors. The rings then set up fake medical clinics—offering free health screenings as a ruse to draw in patients—that submit bogus bills to insurers, collect payments for a few months, and then disappear before the insurers realize they've been had....

“Yesterday's drug dealers are now working in today's health-care fraud,” says John Askins, an investigator in Florida's state insurance fraud division. “It's more lucrative, and they don't face the same dangers they do in the narcotics trade.”The penalties, if they're caught, are lower, too....

But some privacy advocates fear that the rush toward digital health records could ironically create new nightmares for victims of medical ID theft.... “We can expect [medical ID theft] to grow the more we move toward an electronic health-care system. It's going to be a disaster,” says Dr. Deborah Peel, an Austin, Texas psychiatrist and founder of the Patient Privacy Rights Foundation.

Even worse, it can be difficult for patients to purge any fraud from their records. While the Fair Credit Reporting Act gives victims of financial identity theft the right to see and try to correct any mistakes in their credit records, critics say that victims of medical ID theft don't have the same recourse. Health privacy laws “are limited and don't reflect the possibility of medical ID theft,” notes Robert Gellman, a leading privacy consultant in Washington. “Negative information could just bounce around the system forever.”

For some victims, the pain is real.....

To read the rest, click on article link above.

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