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Medical Privacy

I was talking with a doctor the other day and he raised an interesting question: why is there so much attention given to the privacy of hospital records? The laws about medical privacy place very strong restrictions and prohibitions on those data. On those occasions where someone loses a laptop with such information, everyone goes nuts. This doctor said that at his hospital the administrators act as if there are marauding hoardes banging down the doors to steal people’s hospital records. He argued that nobody would want hospital records even if you left them sitting out on a busy street corner with a sign that said “Medical records — free — please take as many as you want.” The more I thought about it, the more I agreed with him.

What could someone do with patient records? I guess maybe you could blackmail someone with AIDS or with a history of mental illness. Or, maybe you could try to sell them to employers, but no employer would buy them. If I were a criminal thinking about trying to steal something from a hospital, it wouldn’t be medical records, it would be drugs or computers or even credit card numbers.

From an individual’s perspective, maybe it would be embarrassing if your cholesterol level was on the internet, or someone could see that you had breast reduction surgery. But what would you personally rather have: a criminal stealing your medical records or someone stealing your wallet with your credit cards?

In writing this, I’m not trying to be incendiary. I honestly am interested in what it is about medical records that makes people so concerned about keeping them secret. Or, is it that public policy is completely out of line with what regular people think on this issue?