Who’s Looking at Your Medical Records?

  • In doing research for a story she was recently working on for CNN, Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen stumbled upon her own personal health information online.

    “There it was,” she says, “in black, white, and hypertext blue. My annual mammograms; the visits to the podiatrist for the splinter in my foot; the kind of birth control I use – it was all on my health insurance company's Web site. And that's not all: The prescription drugs I use were listed on the Web site where I get my prescription drug insurance.”

    Being a healthcare professional myself and working each day within the dictates of HIPAA (The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) I was quite sure that Ms. Cohen was as appalled at her discovery as I was.  I was sure, especially because as an employee of a hospital, I am keenly aware that medical information privacy is a huge issue – and strictly enforced. In fact, each time I click to open an electronic chart, it is tracked.  And you bet, I can lose my job for accessing the chart of somebody who is not my patient – even my chart with my own medical history!

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    But Cohen went on to say, “In a world of busy physicians and increasing medical errors, having your health records online could be helpful.”

    “Hmmm…,” I thought.  I’ve seen Elizabeth Cohen on CNN. She seems like a pretty reasonable person. What gives? Well, you can read her article and judge for yourself.  I can say that I learned a lot from it.

    She didn’t disclose the name of the site or sites on which she spotted her health information, but she did mention a new way of storing and using personal health information offered by private companies, two of them being Google Health from Google, and HealthVault from Microsoft.  I visited these sites and concluded that if they are able to do what they say they are, they indeed might be helpful for some; especially those who travel, want up-to-the-minute information from the comfort and convenience of their home, or just want to be really organized.

    For an example of how she believes online health information can be helpful, Cohen told the story of a physician missing information about a cancerous spot on a CT scan, telling the patient he was fine when he really wasn’t. The patient took on the responsibility for double-checking, located the CT scan report on line, read it, and discovered the radiologist’s finding of the cancerous growth.  Great catch on the part of the patient!

    But, let’s just keep this in perspective and understand that every adult already has the right to see, and possess, his or her entire medical record. So, the patient in this instance could just as well have discovered his doctor’s mistake the good old-fashioned way, by holding the hard copy in his hands and reading it. Granted, he would have had to drive to the hospital or clinic where the scan was done, and obtained the document from a human being in the medical records department. However, let’s consider that on one hand there’s the “security” of somebody going on line claiming to be you – and on the other hand there is the real you showing up in the medical records department with a driver’s license and your face to match. I must say that in my experience, medical records people are most diligent when it comes to following strict policy. And they can also be pretty skeptical – I think it’s in their job description – which is just fine with me. Now, I must say that if my very computer-savvy husband was hearing me say that getting in the car and chasing the paper is a better way to go, he’d probably remark that I’m once again being resistant (more like stubborn) to change; change that is a good idea and well-designed to make our lives a whole lot easier. Hmmm…well, he’s often right...

  • When it comes to travel, and good old paper, another way to have medical information handy – and this is just very basic medical information – is to carry a card in your wallet, listing the medications you’re on, along with diagnosis, allergies, physician contact information and next of kin. As part of patient education in our Cardiac and Pulmonary rehab, each patient gets a card and is strongly encouraged to complete it and carry it in his or her wallet. Almost all of our patients do this, have for years, and can attest to how helpful it can be when they travel and must access health care in a different region.

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    As with any brand new frontier, the verdict is still out, and done right, maybe this on line medical information thing is a good idea. After all, there is more than enough personal financial information out there about me – and so far it hasn’t found its way into the hands of any nasty people yet.  I must say that I do pay $9.99 a month to have it monitored and if unusual activity is detected, I receive an email with a link to what’s occurred.  If this same level of security can be reasonably guaranteed with on line medical information, this new method of health information storage will probably work well for many people. Am I going to log on today and sign up? Nope. I’ll stick with the tried and true paper method for now and dig in my heels until my husband drags me into the next frontier, that is, once they work out the bugs.

Published On: June 10, 2008