Medical Data May Go Online

By CATHERINE DOLINSKI The Tampa Tribune Published: Apr 9, 2007

TALLAHASSEE – Your doctor in Tampa knows you’re allergic to penicillin. What about the hospital in Miami, where you’re headed for a two-week vacation?

Soon, doctors and hospitals throughout the state may obtain such information via the Internet instead of relying on patients and their families to provide it.

Bills advancing through the state Legislature would expand local electronic medical record-sharing programs into a single, statewide network.

“We live in a day of ATMs, BlackBerries and instant messaging,” said Rep. Denise Grimsley, R-Lake Placid, who is sponsoring the proposal in the House. “But when we step into the health care arena, we step back in time to a paper-based system that’s often unsafe and inefficient.”

Grimsley’s bills, which provide the first $5 million to establish the online network, heads to the full House on Tuesday. A Senate committee will hear similar bills the same day.

However, the push for electronic records has detractors sounding alarms about patient confidentiality.

“The states are racing ahead to build these systems,” psychiatrist Deborah Peel said. “I think it’s dangerous to opt in, until Congress fixes what’s wrong.”

Former Gov. Jeb Bush initiated Florida’s move toward electronic medical records in 2004, following President George W. Bush’s executive order to expedite the process. Since then, several pilot projects have launched across the state, including in the Tampa Bay area.

This year’s legislation would create the statewide Florida Health Information Network, available to authorized doctors, hospitals and other providers. The estimated $51 million project could eliminate the repetitive paperwork that patients face every time they seek medical treatment, lower health care costs, reduce medical errors and provide lifesaving information in an emergency.

Such record-sharing would minimize duplication and errors in treating patients who move around or who need treatments from distant specialists, Ronald Burns, an osteopathic physician from Orlando, told the House Health Quality Committee last month. “I have many patients that come to Orlando for treatment that reside in Lakeland, that also receive cancer treatment in Tampa.”

It could also play a critical role in medical responses during hurricanes, he said.

But, Rep. Gayle Harrell asked, how can patients be sure their data are protected from the prying eyes of government, businesses or others?

“The one question that keeps coming up – an issue that is out there, no doubt about it – is the privacy issue,” said Harrell, Health Quality Committee chairwoman.

Internet Is ‘Very Secure’

Electronic records are subject to the same federal and state privacy laws that guard paper records, said Michael Heekin, chairman of the Governor’s Health Information Infrastructure Advisory Board.

A public-private partnership would authorize the network’s users and decide how best to secure it, he said. Options for accessing records could range from a password to a retinal scan; different kinds of users could be granted different levels of access. Meanwhile, banking and other data-sensitive industries have paved the way for encrypting online records.

“The Internet today is a very secure place to do business,” said Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Fort Lauderdale, an Internet entrepreneur who is co-sponsoring the proposal. “There’s a much stronger perception than there is a real application of true hacking that goes on.”

It’s not hacking that worries Deborah Peel most about electronic records.

Insurers, pharmacists, even hospitals have aggregated and sold sensitive patient data over the years, said Peel, who founded the Texas-based Patients Privacy Rights Foundation in 2004. Moving to electronic records, she said, vastly increases the potential for collecting and selling such data.

Last year, New Hampshire enacted legislation banning pharmacies, insurers and other companies from selling medical prescription data. Vermont is considering similar legislation.

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