Probe uncovers hospitals’ inability to protect patient privacy

Posted: January 21, 2014 in Uncategorized
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How we choose to share data with other medical professionals can have a dramatic effect on patient privacy.  In a recent investigation, a few researchers and a journalist were able to identify patient names, conditions, and other medical facts that were thought to be protected as private under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) and its subsequent amendments.  Pieces of medical information about a patient that was “de-identified” in one practice or hospital proved to be able to be “re-identified” if someone wanted to access many pieces of the puzzle through various databases.  The databases, by themselves are benign, but when the information is combined, the full medical picture became clear. 


Here is how it works.  State public health departments are permitted to collect the “de-identified” discharge data from hospitals for research purposes (HIPAA allows this).   The investigation shows, through Freedom of Information Act request process, that the actual buyers of the information are public and private corporations.  By accessing prescription databases and linking them to hospital records, you are now able to identify much more about the patient, the physicians, the diagnoses, and more.  Knowing the patients name was not necessary for this investigation because the investigators were able to link people with situations, mostly in the news stories, with local hospitals.


When the subjects in this investigation were contacted, many were first shocked with the investigators’ ability to get their personal information, mostly through generic internet searches and to be able to link their medical situations, conditions, and outcomes.  As we continue in the fast-paced technological era, it is important that we are aware of the fact that our current system of privacy regulations may not be as fool proof as some may think


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