Securing PHI Feels A Lot Like Y2K

Posted on October 19, 2011 I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the blog network which currently consists of 10 blogs containing over 8000 articles with John having written over 4000 of the articles himself. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 16 million times. John also manages Healthcare IT Central and Healthcare IT Today, the leading career Health IT job board and blog. John is co-founder of and John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can also be found on Twitter: @techguy and @ehrandhit and LinkedIn.

Seems like the comments being made on posts and being emailed to me have been really interesting lately. As I often like to do, I want to highlight those that provide interesting stuff in the comments since many people don’t read all the comments. Here’s one such comment from ip-doctor on my post about de-identified healthcare data.

I am interested in knowing how readers answer John’s question re position on use of de-identified data. My guess is that people don’t know it’s going on and will object to it happening in principle.

Securing PHI feels a lot like Y2K. No doubt breaches occur, and, when they do, they are certainly costly for the offending HCO, but how many examples are there of leaked information being used to harm someone? Seems like the same proscriptions vs. extortion, blackmail, and libel would prevent individuals from using illegally obtained PHI to harm patients.

In fact, the odds that there is a Person A who wishes to harm Person B AND who somehow comes up with Person B’s sensitive PHI AND is able to use it to harm Person B without Person B having ample legal recourse against Person A are hopelessly LONG. Breaches of thousands/hundreds of thousands/millions of records are too large and unspecific to be “used” for nefarious purposes.

We need to secure PHI, but we are hoisting ourselves on our own petards if we let legitimate concerns about the use of patient data block or slow our adoption of EMRs and HCIT for ACOs and PCMHs. Just as there are real benefits associated with use of de-id’ed patient data, there are (significant, hidden) costs with not sharing health data.

The irony here is that the most common, undeniably harmful use of sensitive PHI has been to deny coverage to patients with pre-existing conditions. Kind of makes sense. It is, after all, health information.

Nothing like sharing a post about the fears and challenges associated with sharing data and privacy and following up with a post that talks about how it might not be as big of a risk as many like to make it. Of course, the happy place is somewhere in the middle where we do a good job securing the data while as HIPAA outlines, we avoid placing an undue burden on patient care.