Ethics, respect key to privacy – then IT

It’s been a month abuzz with George Clooney. You know who he is the I’m-not-a doctor-but-I-used-to-play-one-on-TV guy. He was pre-McDreamy handsome as Dr. Doug Ross on ER. Then he went on to become a big film star, director and producer. Still handsome.

He’s such a public figure, and we (a lot of us) have followed his career as he’s ticked off one film success after another. Perhaps that’s why some members of the staff at Palisades Medical Center might have felt it was OK to check on George’s medical record. What could it hurt?

Clooney was treated at the New Jersey hospital after a minor motorcycle accident. Twenty-seven staff members have been accused of taking a peek at his records an unauthorized peek.

The hospital’s union chief did not defend the action, but she said the hospital acted too quickly when it suspended the 27 staff members for one month without pay. Some of the people suspended may have been authorized, she said.

Well, OK. The hospital needs to sort that out. We expect it’s on the case right now checking authorizations, procedures and technology.

One reason the Clooney incident has garnered so much attention here at Healthcare IT News and around the country is that it has put the spotlight on privacy concerns.

Healthcare IT News received more letters on this issue in the past month than we have in the past year.

Some who wrote letters said the penalty was not severe enough. They would have fired the rule breakers.

Others took the opportunity to point to how vulnerable our privacy has become. If it happened to Clooney, it could happen to any one of us. Perhaps dozens of people would not be interested in our condition. But a friend, neighbor or family member might be and perhaps could rationalize taking a quick look at a record that is supposed to be accessible to the patient and those who need it to provide the patient’s care.

“The combination of technology and the right value system can’t single-handedly solve everything, but it does put a hospital on solid footing,” Robert Seliger, co-founder and CEO of Sentillion, an access management vendor, told Healthcare IT News Managing Editor Eric Wicklund. “It is very difficult to practice respectful privacy and deliver healthcare these days while using IT to do both,” he added.

Seliger is right. There are many people today working on this very issue.

Among them are Deborah Peel, MD, a psychiatrist and privacy rights activist, and the group of people who make up the Healthcare Information Technology Standards Panel (part of the American Health Information Community). The panel just released a set of standards aimed at keeping medical information secure in an electronic environment. If you think it’s simple, take a look at the so-called “constructs.”

Peel and the bi-partisan Coalition for Patient Privacy are  urging Congress to build ironclad privacy protections into electronic health systems up front.

All of this work and advocacy is laudable, and it must continue. But, as we are often reminded by CIOs and IT directors across the country, technology can’t fix bad processes.

Both the processes and the technology have to be right, in sync and informed by a healthy dose of ethics, common sense and respect for the spirit as well as the letter of the law. Then George Clooney and the rest of us will have a better shot at privacy.

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