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Your Private Medical Records Are Being Sold to Drug Companies.
Even worse, half of all US states leave enough information in the
records that YOU can be clearly identified. Action Alert!
Hospitals and other medical organizations are supposed to be bound by HIPAA
(the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) to keep medical
records private. Patient information that is shared is supposed to be
stripped of key identifying information (this is known as the Safe Harbor
rule). However, HIPAA and other privacy legislation is riddled with
loopholes—so many that it has been estimated that over 800,000 organizations
can access your records.
Here is one big, fat loophole: state public health agencies are exempt from
Safe Harbor rules when they sell private medical records as part of a health
database. When this medical data is cross-referenced with other public
information (such as news reports and other databases), it can reveal your
Many states in the US voluntarily follow HIPAA guidelines when sharing
electronic medical records, but at least twenty-five states leave some
combination of identifying information that makes it possible for whoever
buys the data to pinpoint anyone’s personal medical record—and then make it
public. Records in Washington, New York, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Arizona
were particularly vulnerable, according to records reviewed by Bloomberg News
and Latanya Sweeney, director of Harvard University’s Data Privacy Lab.
Who would want this data? The drug industry, for one. Pharmaceutical
companies are major buyers of these medical records—they use them to design
ads to doctors and target potential patients. Other buyers include IMS
Health, a provider of prescription data, also used by drug companies;
OptumInsight, a division of UnitedHealth Group, the country’s biggest health
insurer; and WebMD, which uses the data to tailor information found on their
As the public becomes more aware of just how vulnerable electronic medical
records (EMRs) are, consumers may be more reluctant to seek medical care.
Patients rely on doctor–patient confidentiality, and that sacred trust is
meaningless if one’s information is sold to the highest bidder.
Case in point: there is a new form of gonorrhea that is resistant to
cephalosporin and other antibiotics. This is a serious public health concern,
and one that requires careful treatment (not to mention a great deal more
research). While young people are at the highest risk for gonorrhea, they are
also the most likely to hesitate to see a doctor—particularly for such a
personal, potentially humiliating issue—if they fear their private
information will be exposed.
In addition, EMRs can cost taxpayers money. The digital nature of the data
means it is much easier for doctors to overbill, whether by mistake or
through fraud. As we reported in February, doctors can claim to provide more
services than they actually do; they can also cut and paste the same
examination findings for multiple patients for the sake of expediency, even
if those same findings only applied to one or two. EMRs can actually increase
the paperwork burden, are subject to serious technological glitches, and of
course are tremendously vulnerable to hackers and other security violations.
In an interesting new trend, many doctors are choosing to operate outside the
system all together, providing “concierge” medical services to patients on a
prepaid membership-fee basis rather than on a standard insurance model. Some
concierge doctors stop accepting insurance altogether and can charge as
little as $38 a month, though for most people the annual fee amounts to
roughly $4 to $5 per day. This system can be a win/win for doctors and
patients: patients’ medical records can more easily be kept outside of the
huge medical record databases; it can cut down on unnecessary treatments and,
of course, high insurance costs; and it allows doctors to see fewer patients
and give the ones they have more personalized care.
Most of the medical industry, however, is still stuck in this miasma of
messed up medical records, poor security, and legal loopholes that allow
patients’ private information to be publicly exposed.
Action Alert! Ask Congress to amend HIPAA to allow patients to opt out—to
keep their medical information from being sold or shared with any entity that
is not currently giving the patient medical treatment.
Deborah A. Ray, MT (ASCP)
Craig R. Smith
God Bless Everyone & God Bless The United States of America.
42 S. Sherwood Dr.
Belton, Tx. 76513
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