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Electronic Records, Private Lives

Appropriate Access continued...

He points to developments such as so-called radio frequency identification, or RFID technology, currently under development at MIT and other technology centers, in which minuscule radio-transmitting chips can be buried in everything from goods on the supermarket shelf to the clothing on your back. A similar type of technology, using retinal scans, was featured in the Stephen Spielberg sci-fi thriller Minority Report.

"RFID really could improve communication dramatically, but people are afraid of being tagged and watched and being countable," Schwaitzberg tells WebMD.

Still, he says, "millions of Americans are buying something online right now. Americans seem to be happy to give up information about themselves, and yet there is a very stalwart group of people who are very concerned."

Schwaitzberg and others who advocate online health records say many of those fears could be allayed by a well-designed system with checks and balances. For example, patients could use a personal identification number, or PIN code, to get access to an electronic medical record, sharing it with doctors or other health-care providers who need the information, and then changing the code to ensure privacy when necessary.

That way, someone who becomes injured or sick while traveling could grant instant access to health records by local doctors.

A bigger barrier to the flow of information, Schwaitzberg says, is the current hodgepodge of incompatible information systems, many of which are designed for use only in a specific hospital or group of health centers.

Data for Sale?

If you are one of those people who worry that health-care providers will be tempted to sell your private medical information to the highest bidder, you should know that hospitals have an even more powerful incentive to keep that information under electronic lockdown. That incentive is called HIPAA, for the bipartisan Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, also known as the Kennedy-Kassebaum Act of 1996.

The act is designed to encourage the use of electronic transactions in health-care while safeguarding the security and confidentially of health information. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, most health insurers, pharmacies, doctors, and other health-care providers are required to comply with the standards.

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