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Rita K. Bowen

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The Next Big Healthcare Debate: Data Privacy and Security

Posted: 07/14/10 05:00 PM ET

It's a shame that policymakers and media pundits have been overly eager to use the phrase "Healthcare Reform" to define every adjustment made to the healthcare industry over the past decade (or two). As I prepare to speak this week on "Navigating Healthcare in the 21st Century" it's occurred to me that the continuous hype has left us somewhat desensitized to - and suspicious of - calling what we've witnessed in the last few years 'reform.' But it is definitely the right word for the flood of unprecedented change occurring in our nation's healthcare infrastructure; in fact, you might even call it a revolution. And that revolution is quickly leading us to the next big healthcare debate: that of privacy and security.

Getting data privacy and security right are two of the most essential pieces to the healthcare reform puzzle. At the moment, our success hinges on striking a balance between the benefits of increased information sharing and the risk of not keeping patient health records appropriately secure and safe. We need to tighten the healthcare industry's privacy and security regulations, but how? Innovative regulatory and technology solutions are possible, but for real success, it will be essential that American healthcare consumers understand and support digital healthcare and its implications.

The truth is, our healthcare system's digital transition not only helps address current privacy and security gaps prevalent within the existing paper-based environment, but also lays the necessary foundation that healthcare providers need to reduce medication errors, improve efficiencies, enhance care delivery, and reduce costs. From all standpoints, the digitization of healthcare is good medicine.

But on a consumer level, when it comes to a patient's individual health record, the need for privacy and security usually trumps physician accessibility. For that reason, Americans have been hesitant to swallow this strange new pill. Moves to improve access to patient records via digital channels were originally rebuffed by the public. Digital access sounds scary, insecure, and unregulated, much like the way the Internet operates today.

Those of us inside the system understand that the reality of digital healthcare information sharing is much different. Healthcare companies and the medical community do want to increase the speed at which electronic exchange of patient information becomes part of mainstream practice. But no one plans to realize that goal by sacrificing patient record safety and security.

The new generation of electronic health record (EHR) software systems are equipped with multiple security and privacy layers that make it virtually impossible to gain unauthorized access to any single patient record, and are less enticing to hackers than any paper-based record system out there. These same systems must also pass strict government-authorized certification standards that include a long checklist of criteria to ensure that they are compliant with existing HIPAA and security measures.

The next concern in this space will be interoperability - ensuring that these same strict privacy and security measures carry outside the walls of any one health system and into the community. This is a valid concern, and the driving force behind why many states are already beginning to establish Health Information Exchanges (HIE) or Regional Health Information Networks (RHIN). When authorized by a patient, these centers can safely and securely transfer all or part of an individual's Electronic Health Record to out-of-network providers or other entities. The state involvement is attractive because it not only provides a solution for safety concerns, but it also ensures that patients receive care based on the most up-to-date and accurate health data - which saves time and money for the system and promotes better health outcomes for patients.

It may seem that with each solution along the road to healthcare reform, we uncover a new challenge. The hype gets old and we become numb. But it is important to understand that this revolution was started with one simple idea: that it's high time to fix a largely inefficient system for the benefit of American patients, the healthcare system and the government. Each milestone achieved along the way promises to reshape our healthcare experiences, we hope for the better.