Colleges Struggle to Define Privacy in Computer Age

Article excerpt

Can the records of a few sessions with a college counselor today come back to haunt you years from now, like when you've just been nominated partner in a law firm?

You're madly in love with your boyfriend, but your birth control suddenly failed, so you drop in for a pregnancy test at the health service. The good news - it's negative - is scrawled into your medical record.

Will there be a co-payment charge for the test on your term bill, which goes to your parents? Could the record of your love troubles someday wind up in the wrong hands, like when you've decided to go for the big job? Privacy advocates say college students may have even more to fear than the rest of us from the growing centralization and computerization of medical records, and from new laws that could undermine confidentiality for decades to come. For one thing, students have more years of life ahead in which troubling tidbits can lurk in cyberspace for employers or insurers to find. For another, they're still learning their way around the medical system and experimenting with relationships that can trigger medical visits. Some colleges, such as Harvard and Wellesley, have written confidentiality policies that explicitly put a priority on privacy - with a few exceptions. At Wellesley, "no records are released without a student's consent unless it's a life or death matter or unless it's required for insurance or the chart were subpoenaed," said Dr. Charlotte Sanner, director of the health services. And on-campus counseling records are "kept separate and locked up," said Robin Cook-Nobles, director of the Wellesley counseling service. Other schools, including Smith College and the University of Massachusetts, are so concerned about privacy, they offer anonymous - not just confidential - AIDS testing, which means test results don't even go in your record. Harvard and Tufts are considering adopting similar policies. Some argue that colleges are more sensitized to confidentiality issues than institutions in the outside world because they've spent years walking the tightrope between the rights of students, who are legally adults at age 18, and the concerns of parents, who worry about their not-quite-independent offspring - and still pay the bills. Just a few weeks ago, Congress passed the Kennedy-Kassebaum bill which ensures portability of benefits from job to job but mandates "administrative simplification." This sets in motion a process that could give every patient a unique "identifier" like a Social Security number and create a national computer network to allow health care companies to pass records among themselves. …