States Review Rules After Patients Identified via Health Records

To view the full article, please visit States Review Rules After Patients Identified via Health Records.

Key Quotes from the Article:

  • -“Some U.S. states are reviewing their policies around the collection and sale of health information to ensure that some patients can’t be identified in publicly available databases of hospital records.”
  • -Bloomberg News, working with Harvard University professor Latanya Sweeney, reported on June 4 that some patients of Washington hospitals could be identified by name and have their conditions and procedures exposed when a database sold by the state for $50 is combined with news articles and other public information.
  • -The state probes are focused on whether privacy standards for health information should be tightened as data-mining technologies get more sophisticated and U.S. President Barack Obama’s health-care overhaul drives rapid growth in the amount of patient data being generated and shared.
  • -Sweeney’s goal of identifying patients is to show that threats to privacy exist in datasets that are widely distributed and fall outside HIPAA’s regulations.

OCR Could Include Cloud Provision in Forthcoming Omnibus HIPAA Rule

The quotes below are from an article written by Alex Ruoff in the Bloomberg Health IT Law and Industry Report.

“Deborah Peel, founder of Patient Privacy Rights, said few providers understand how HIPAA rules apply to cloud computing. This is a growing concern among consumer groups, she said, as small health practices are turning to cloud computing to manage their electronic health information. Cloud computing solutions are seen as ideal for small health practices as they do not require additional staff to manage information systems, Peel said.
Cloud computing for health care requires the storage of protected health information in the cloud—a shared electronic environment—typically managed outside the health care organization accessing or generating the data (see previous article).
Little is known about the security of data managed by cloud service providers, Nicolas Terry, co-director of the Hall Center for Law and Health at Indiana University, said. Many privacy advocates are concerned that cloud storage, because it often stores information on the internet, is not properly secured, Terry said. He pointed to the April 17 agreement between Phoenix Cardiac Surgery and HHS in which the surgery practice agreed to pay $100,000 to settle allegations it violated HIPAA Security Rules (see previous article).
Phoenix was using a cloud-based application to maintain protected health information that was available on the internet and had no privacy and security controls.

Demands for Guidance

Peel’s group, in the Dec. 19 letter, called for guidance “that highlights the lessons learned from the Phoenix Cardiac Surgery case while making clear that HIPAA does not prevent providers from moving to the cloud.”

Peel’s letter asked for:
• technical safeguards for cloud computing solutions, such as risk assessments of and auditing controls for cloud-based health information technologies;
• security standards that establish the use and disclosure of individually identifiable information stored on clouds; and
• requirements for cloud solution providers and covered entities to enter into a business associate agreement outlining the terms of use for health information managed by the cloud provider.”

Kravis Backs N.Y. Startups Using Apps to Cut Health Costs

The title should have been: “Wall Street trumps the Hippocratic Oath and NY patients’ privacy” or “NY gives technology start-ups free access to millions of New Yorkers sensitive health data without informed consent starting in February”.

Of course we need apps to lower health costs, coordinate care, and help people get well, but apps should be developed using ‘synthetic’ data, not real patient data. Giving away valuable identifiable patient data to app developers is very risky and violates patients legal and ethical rights to health information privacy under state and federal law—each of us has strong rights to decide who can see and use personal health information.

What happens when app developers use, disclose or sell Mayor Bloomberg’s, Governor Cuomo’s, Sec of State Hillary Clinton’s, or Peter Thiel’s electronic health records? Or will access to prominent people’s health records be blocked by the data exchange, while everyone’s else’s future jobs and credit are put at risk by developer access to health data?  Will Bloomberg publish a story about the consequences of this decision by whoever runs the NY health data exchange? Will Bloomberg write about the value, sale, and massive technology-enabled exploitation of health data for discrimination and targeted marketing of drugs, treatments, or for extortion of political or business enemies? Natasha Singer of the NYTimes calls this the ‘surveillance economy’.

The story did not mention ways to develop apps that protect patients’ sensitive information from disclosure to people not directly involved in patient care. The story could have said that the military uses “synthetic” patient data for technology research and app development. They realize that NOT protecting the security and privacy of sensitive data of members of the military and their families creates major national security risks.  The military builds and tests technology and apps on synthetic data; researchers or app developers don’t get access to real, live patient data without tough security clearances and high-level review of those who are granted permission to access data for approved projects that benefit patients. Open access to military health data bases threatens national security. Will open access to New Yorkers’ health data also threaten national security?

NY just started a national and international gold rush to develop blockbuster health apps AND will set off a rush by other states to give away or sell identifiable patient health information in health information exchanges (HIEs) or health information organizations (HIOs)—-by allowing technology developers access to an incredibly large, valuable data base of identifiable patient health information.  Do the developers get the data free—or is NY selling health data? The bipartisan Coalition for Patient Privacy (represents 10.3M people) worked to get a ban on the sale of patient health data into the stimulus bill because the hidden sale of health data is a major industry that enables hidden discrimination in key life opportunities like jobs and credit. Selling patient data for all sorts of uses is a very lucrative industry.

Further, NY patients are being grossly misled: they think they gave consent ONLY for their health data to be exchanged so other health professionals can treat them. Are they informed that dozens of app developers will be able to copy all their personal health data to build technology products they may not want or be interested in starting in February?

Worst of all the consequences of systems that eliminate privacy is: patients to act in ways that risk their health and lives when they know their health information is not private:

  • -600K/year avoid early treatment and diagnosis for cancer because they know their records will not be private
  • -2M/year avoid early treatment and diagnosis for depression for the same reasons
  • -millions/year avoid early treatment and diagnosis of STDs, for the same reason
  • -1/8 hide data, omit or lie to try to keep sensitive information private

More questions:

  • -What proof is there that the app developers comply with the contracts they sign?
  • -Are they audited to prove the identifiable patient data is truly secure and not sold or disclosed to third parties?
  • -What happens when an app developer suffers a privacy breach—most health data today is not secure or encrypted? If the app developers signed Business Associate Agreements at least they would have to report the data breaches.
  • -What happens when many of the app developers can’t sell their products or the businesses go bust? They will sell the patient data they used to develop the apps for cash.
  • -The developers reportedly signed data use agreements “covering federal privacy rules”, which probably means they are required to comply with HIPAA.  But HIPAA allows data holders to disclose and sell patient data to third parties, promoting further hidden uses of personal data that patients will never know about, much less be able to agree to.  Using contracts that do not require external auditing to protect sensitive information and not requiring proof that the developers can be trusted is a bad business practice.

NY has opened Pandora’s box and not even involved the public in an informed debate.