Profound changes are under way that threaten the
confidentiality of medical records - records that contain not only
the potentially embarrassing medical secrets you tell your doctor
but details about where you live, what you earn and other personal
information that can be used, or misused, for a variety of
purposes. With changes in the way these records are stored,
maintained and exchanged, a patient's privacy is at risk as never
The old paper-based system of recording medical information -
in efficient perhaps, but easier to keep private - is for the most
part a thing of the past. What's replacing it? Computerized systems
in which your secrets are transmitted through cyberspace from your
treating physicians to insurers, oversight agencies and others with
an interest in the cost of your medical care.
With the growth of HMOs and health networks, these computerized
systems often include electronic depositories of patient
information, which insurers and others can access from remote
locations throughout the country. No one tells you who's looking
because no one is required to.
A further complication is the rise of commercial information
companies. In 1995, Equifax - the country's largest dispenser of
credit reports - announced its intention to enter the computerized
medical records industry. Although a joint venture among AT&T,
Equifax, and others has been temporarily put on hold, Equifax still
intends to tap into this growth industry.
Medical information is fast becoming a commodity. And when your
secrets can be bought and sold, you should be concerned about who
is looking at your medical records, and why.
Horror stories abound. A New York psychiatrist was asked to
leave detailed information about a patient's infidelity and other
sensitive matters on an insurance company's answering machine.
Tennis star Arthur Ashe's AIDS condition was made public through a
leaked report. A convicted child rapist with access to computerized
medical records obtained phone numbers that he used to call young
Many think the confidentiality of their medical records is
protected by federal law. Not so. Though a proposed federal law -
the Medical Records Confidentiality Act of 1995, called the
"Bennett Bill" - is being considered by the Senate, the privacy of
medical records is now governed only by state law. Many states,
however, don't protect the confidentiality of medical records. …