Privacy Groups Caution as Insurers Move Health Records to Web

By | June 11, 2007

Privacy groups are sounding alarms as the nation’s largest insurance companies finalize plans to allow millions more customers to post their health records on the Internet.

Insurers like Hartford-based Aetna Inc. say Web-based tools help patients and physicians keep track of medical information while potentially holding down spiraling medical costs.

About 100 million insurance customers in the U.S. have access to Web-based tools, but companies don’t have an estimate of how widely they are used. Insurers hope to at least double the technology’s reach by the end of next year.

Aetna chief executive Ronald Williams says the change is as revolutionary to health care as the introduction of the ATM card was to banking in the 1980s.

But privacy advocates say there’s no guarantee that the records will be safe from hackers. Some worry that patients may refuse to disclose some illnesses to their doctors to keep documents out of databases.

“As a former nurse I know that back in the 1980s, patients who were alcoholics did not want to have paper records,” said Sue Blevins, president of the Institute for Health Freedom in Washington, D.C.. “They just didn’t want people to know. They didn’t tell people they were alcoholics. That could affect the quality of their care.”

Aetna, which offers personal health records to its customers, says security procedures include a member login and an online registration Web site with secure sign-ons. In addition, customers can restrict elements of their records from being shared among health practitioners.

The Hartford-based insurer said personal health records are protected by the same security technology that is used for online banking.

Personal health records, which are available through insurers Aetna, Blue Cross Blue Shield and others, are intended to help doctors and patients track medications and treatments.

The technology allows doctors to record test results, immunizations, prescriptions and other medical information into an online database that can be accessed by patients, the insurer and other physicians if needed. Patients can also add details about over-the-counter medications, plans of care, family health histories and other information.

Insurance companies hope the technology will help manage treatment of chronic illnesses, which accounted for the biggest cost increases over the last five years, said Alissa Fox, vice president for legislative and regulatory police for Blue Cross Blue Shield Association.

“If you can manage those conditions, you can control health care costs,” she said.

Many tools have emerged in recent years on the Internet, where patients enrolled in insurance networks can research insurance plans and find doctors who are accepted by their insurance companies.

Insurance companies hope online personal health records will also become widely used as consumers take more control of their health care.

“There’s agreement that moving to an electronic system will remove errors and get people more involved in health care,” said Susan Pisano, a spokeswoman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, a Washington, D.C.-based trade association that represents health insurers.

Online health records help patients track an array of tests, treatments and numerous other actions required to handle chronic illnesses, Pisano said.

“You’re going to have to play a role and how are you going to do that unless you have a tool?” she said.

Pam Hardcastle, a senior information technologist who maintains Web sites and manages electronic information at The Dow Chemical Co. in Freeport, Texas, was among the first to use an online health record offered by her employer in early March. The Dow personal health record was rolled out by Aetna Inc., which administers the company’s insurance program.

A centralized storehouse of her medical information is a boon, she said.

“I don’t remember when I had my last tetanus shot,” said Hardcastle, 49. “It puts it all there. It’s in one place and easy to maintain.”

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