Locking down privacy: Where do we draw the line?

Patient privacy dates back to ancient Greece, beginning with the physician and teacher Hippocrates, who is often called the father of Western medicine. He authored the Hippocratic Oath to establish best practices for his fellow physicians and to build trust with his own patients. It was necessary for him to keep the ailments of his contemporaries secret, lest they be subject to humiliation, personal harm or loss of opportunity.

Ironically, more than 2,400 years later, patient privacy remains a fundamental issue, and the repercussions of information leaks are just as distressing. Areas of vulnerability have now expanded beyond the doctor-patient relationship in the exam room to encompass whole healthcare systems, communities, nations and even the global marketplace. With electronic information storage and transmission coming of age, whispering behind a closed door, as Hippocrates might have done, is obviously not enough to protect privacy.

Deborah Peel, MD, is the founder of Patient Privacy Rights (PPR), a national not-for-profit watchdog coalition. As a physician, she was inspired to adopt privacy as her mission in 1993 after an unnerving proposal from President Bill Clinton called for every patient encounter in America to be recorded in an electronic data-base. She was intimately familiar with the anxiety related to privacy in her own psychiatric-services practice, but the broad reach of electronic health records posed an imminent threat she just couldn’t ignore.

“For 30 years, I’ve been in the most privacy-sensitive specialty in medicine,” Dr. Peel says. “I’ve spent 30 years listening to how people’s reputations and lives are ruined. If you were in my shoes, you’d be doing this, too.”

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