Public Opinion: Can EMRs ensure privacy?

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U.S. adults are questioning whether the potential privacy risks associated with a patient electronic medical record (EMR) system outweigh the expected benefits to patients and society, according to a Harris Interactive study released last week before the National Committee on Vital and Health Statistics of the Department of Health and Human Services.
"I am convinced that how the public sees the privacy risks and responses from EMR managers will be absolutely critical to the EMR system's success - or will be a major factor in its failure," said Dr. Alan Westin, professor of public law & government emeritus, Columbia University and director of a new program on Information Technology, Health Records & Privacy at Privacy & American Business (P&AB). "That is the reality that program advocates will need to consider, respond to, and overcome by implementing a range of laws, rules, practices, technology arrangements, privacy education, and positive patient experiences - if EMRs are to win majority public support and high patient participation."
Allen released the results of the national survey to the committee.
According to the study, half of U.S. adults - 48 percent - say the benefits to patients and society of a patient EMR system outweighs risks to privacy but 47 percent say the privacy risks outweigh the expected benefits. Four percent said they weren't sure.
Further more, between 62 and 70 percent of adults are worried that sensitive health information might leak because of weak data security; that there could be more sharing of patients' medical information without their knowledge; that computerization could increase rather than decrease medical errors; that some people won't disclose necessary information to health care providers because of worries that it will go into computerized records; and that existing federal health privacy rules will be reduced in the name of efficiency.
More than eight out of ten respondents - 82 percent - say offering consumers the tools to track their own personal medical information in the new EMR system and to assert their privacy rights is important to implement at the start of any EMR system. In fact, 45 percent of U.S. adults considered this to be "very important." Only 17 percent did not see this as important, with 1 percent not sure.
In his testimony, Dr. Westin made several recommendations to the committee, based on the survey findings, such as create a "Privacy by Design Working Group" in the EMR program and create an "EMR Privacy Board" with continuing problem-solving identification, investigative, and standards-recommending duties.
Harris Interactive conducted the survey by telephone within the United States between February 8 and 13, among a nationwide cross section of 1,012 adults (ages 18 and over).
For more information on the study, visit