Electronic Medical Records: How Safe Are They?

Healthcare reform legislation has created financial incentives for hospitals to integrate electronic medical records (EMR) technology into their clinical information systems. The migration to EMR offers a number of significant advantages for both patients and medical professionals by creating an electronic repository for patient records, lab results, drug information and more. Still, some are waving a red flag; there are legitimate concerns about potential threats to patient privacy.

The EMR Era

Electronic Medical Records:  How Safe Are They?Each patient’s electronic medical record contains their medical history and data, all of which can be searched, reviewed and shared to ensure optimal patient safety and improved staff communication about prescriptions, tests, and more. Having patient data digitally available allows for more integrated care across various providers and specialists. There is no longer a need to fax files, get copies of x-rays, repeat tests, or fill out new paperwork. The information is already in the EMR system.
The primary objective of EMR is to improve the quality and efficiency of patient care. Providers can treat a patient more precisely when they have a complete picture of their medical history. There are also cost-saving features to be considered. Research by the New England Healthcare Institute shows that EMR technology, combined with e-prescribing solutions, vastly improves medication management for patients, resulting in better outcomes and lower costs. It is estimated that $290 billion in preventable annual spending is accrued by patients who don’t take their medications as directed.

A Question of Privacy

Regardless of the advantages, many people remain wary about electronic medical records. These records contain a great deal of sensitive data, and if they are accessed by the wrong party, the information could be used in negligent and harmful ways. Particularly vulnerable are celebrities, athletes, and politicians. Private details of the rich and famous make for exciting (and lucrative) news fodder.
Consumers also worry about ways that their own records could be compromised. Could the government use someone’s medical history to prove guilt? Could researchers illegally obtain information to analyze data about people with certain diseases? Could your worst nightmare about your most personal data come to fruition?
There can never be a guarantee that any electronic data stored on any system or network, healthcare or otherwise, is 100 percent safe from hackers. Nonetheless, the medical community and the government must establish laws and ethical standards that address the unique privacy concerns that surround the implementation of electronic medical records.

Securing EMR Data

Clinical information systems developers are already working on sophisticated new ways of using authentication and authorization technology to protect medical data. In many cases, the threat to these records is not from an outside party. Rather, the threat to the patient’s privacy can come from healthcare employees. Some people, who have legitimate access to the records for billing or other purposes, could snoop out of pure curiosity because they recognize a patient’s name or have some other justification.
There are a number of groups who are working to make these records more secure. Some of the most important initiatives are being spearheaded by the Strategic Health Care Info Technology Advanced Research Project (SHARP). This organization has dedicated $15 million to finding ways to keep medical records secure. They are approaching this issue from several different angles, including limiting who can access certain types of records. For instance, they may create programs that allow only specific healthcare workers to access only limited sections of the EMR. Efforts like these will help to allay privacy concerns.
One of the most important steps in ensuring that electronic medical records are kept secure is establishing an “audit trail that will show who accessed each medical record and when. This would force both clinical and non-clinical professionals to be particularly conscientious about how they deal with the sensitive information in these electronic files.
As with any new technology, there are pros and cons. But, unless there are drastic changes to the current government healthcare mandates, the medical community will continue to move forward swiftly with EMR initiatives. It will be the responsibility of health care providers, EMR technology developers, and health system clinical information systems teams to work together in ensuring the protection of patient privacy.
Author Byline: Laura Mingo writes in the field of higher education. This article aims to offer career advice for university students in relation to IT and promotes the benefits of advanced study regarding an online computer information systems degree.