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Medical Identity Theft — Who stole my gallbladder?

June 2, 2008
by James Feldbaum
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According to the Federal Trade Commission's 2006 Identity Theft Survey Report, of the 8.3 million Americans who were victims of identity theft in 2005, 3 percent, or 249,000, said someone had obtained medical treatment and services using their personal information.

Unlike financial identity theft, medical identity theft is much more devastating than simply getting stuck for services never received or products never purchased. At a time when we are struggling to implement a unified electronic Personal Health Record (PHR) medical identity theft can be its death knell by potentially recording false entries in a victim’s health records at hospitals, doctors' offices, pharmacies and insurance companies. Changes made to victims' medical files and histories can remain for years and may not ever be corrected, or even discovered, which can have deadly consequences according to Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, a nonprofit privacy-rights organization in Cardiff by the Sea, Calif., in an article in the Dallas Morning News.

Substantive insertions into victims' medical files and histories may go undetected by the patient or providers with tragic consequences. Imagine having your medical record populated with diseases you never had, operations never preformed and even an incorrect allergy history. A victim can essentially be robbed of all of the safety enhancements promised by a PHR and be put at increased risk by the propagation of misinformation. Besides the risk to life-and-limb a patient could discover themselves to be uninsurable or unemployable.

One must assume that as more and more patients subscribe to a PHR the number of identity thefts will climb as well. With 46 million uninsured Americans one can imagine the temptation for a black-market for false medical identity cards. It will be incumbent upon our industry to take every safe-guard to secure vital personal health information if the PHR movement is to take hold.

Life happens too fast for you ever to think about it. If you could just persuade people of this, but they insist on amassing information.

Kurt Vonnegut (1922 - 2007)

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It has been two days since this posting went on-line. Yesterday the ACLU had the following press release:

Washington, DC—The American Civil Liberties Union urges the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health at today's hearing to develop privacy and security standards at the same time the health care industry converts from paper to electronic patient records. The ACLU warns that without real patient controls and compensation for misused data, American medical records are extremely vulnerable to being lost or stolen from these systems.

"Right now, patient information is at risk of becoming a commodity that business can sell or trade," said Timothy Sparapani, ACLU Senior Legislative Counsel. "Medical privacy should not become a casualty of the race to set up electronic health records. We need real patient control of data and damages for misuse or theft. Patients must be able to review files, correct bad data, and block access without consent to personal information. The legislation before the subcommittee does not have these protections."

Sparapani noted, "There is tons of money behind a bill to encourage electronic health records. The bill under consideration at today's hearing takes the de facto industry standard from 43 states and makes it universal. This bill only forces the 7 states that do not have notice and breach provisions for when any company has a data hacking or data loss to notify patients that their data has been compromised and to protect against identity theft."

Several bills aimed at developing a nationwide electronic network for storing and sharing Americans medical information in order to reduce medical error, improve patient care and possibly save money are moving through both houses of Congress.

The "damages" word has raised its ugly head. It could be the green light for lawyers to profit from our mistakes.

James Feldbaum

Jim Feldbaum is a physician consultant specializing in clinical transformation, CPOE, and...