Patient records stay offline pending stronger laws

Plans to shift Australia's health records online have been stalled until the government introduces 'legal privacy sanctions with teeth.'

In the absence of privacy laws to protect patient records and recent reports of e-health companies onselling information, the Australian Medical Association (AMA) yesterday told CW Today it will not support the government's e-health initiatives until these issues are addressed.

AMA vice president, Dr Trevor Mudge is meeting the Minister for Health, Dr Michael Wooldridge this week to call for 'overarching privacy legislation specific to e-health'.

"The recently introduced privacy act does not protect patient records and we want to make it clear privacy is not some minor hurdle to overcome to realise e-health; we want legislation with criminal sanctions," Mudge said.

Privacy and trust, he said, are the cornerstones of the medical industry and, under present laws, patient privacy is open to abuse such as the onselling of records.

"The on-selling of patient records should be made illegal there are no sanctions at the present time to protect data from such abuse; we want to keep the baby when we throw out the bath water."

Mudge called on IT providers pitching solutions to the government as part of its e-health initiatives to be responsible participants in the development of electronic information systems.

"When designing software look at the strongest safeguards possible security and privacy should not be secondary considerations," he said.

Health records are expected to move online in the next two years but Mudge warned progress will not be made until privacy issues are addressed.

"NSW Premier Bob Carr has been talking about these initiatives moving forward in the short term without recognising the significant technical difficulties that need to be overcome, not to mention the lack of safeguards that need to be put in place," Mudge said.

The federal government, he said, is still moving ahead with plans to use Medicare numbers as a 'unique patient identifer' in the development of a records database.

"This should be ringing alarm bells across the country making Medicare cards the 21st century version of the notorious Australia card; this database is supposed to be underway by July but the government is being very cagey about the whole thing," Mudge said.

As reported previously (CW September 11, 2000 P1) Australia is following similar health industry trends overseas where dotcom companies are providing information solutions to government and introducing opt-in Web sites for patients to access doctors and other medical information.

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