Knotty Problems Surround Substance Abuse Data Sharing via EMRs

Posted on May 27, 2015 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

As I see it, rules giving mental health and substance abuse data extra protection are critical. Maybe someday, there will be little enough stigma around these illnesses that special privacy precautions aren’t necessary, but that day is far in the future.

That’s why a new bill filed by Reps. Tim Murphy (R-PA.) and Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), aimed at simplifying sharing of substance misuse data between EMRs, deserves a close look by those of us who track EMR data privacy. Tonko and Murphy propose to loosen federal rules on such data sharing  such that a single filled-out consent form from a patient would allow data sharing throughout a hospital or health system.

As things currently stand, federal law requires that in the majority of cases, federally-assisted substance abuse programs are barred from sharing personally-identifiable patient information with other entities if the programs don’t have a disclosure consent. What’s more, each other entity must itself obtain another consent from a patient before the data gets shared again.

At a recent hearing on the 21st Century Cures Act, Rep. Tonko argued that the federal requirements, which became law before EMRs were in wide use, were making it more difficult for individuals fighting a substance abuse problem to get the coordinated care that they needed.  While they might have been effective privacy protections at one point, today the need for patients to repeatedly approve data sharing merely interferes with the providers’ ability to offer value-based care, he suggested. (It’s hard to argue that it can’t be too great for ACOs to hit such walls.)

Clearly, Tonko’s goals can be met in some form.  In fact, other areas of the clinical world are making great progress in sharing mental health data while avoiding data privacy entanglements. For example, a couple of months ago the National Institute of Mental Health announced that its NIMH Limited Datasets project, including data from 23 large NIMH-supported clinical trials, just sent out its 300th dataset.

Rather than offer broader access to data and protect individual identifiers stringently, the datasets contain private human study participant information but are shared only with qualified researchers. Those researchers must win approval for a Data Use Certification agreement which specifies how the data may be used, including what data confidentiality and security measures must be taken.

Of course, practicing clinicians don’t have time to get special approval to see the data for every patient they treat, so this NIMH model doesn’t resolve the issues hospitals and providers face in providing coordinated substance abuse care on the fly.

But until a more flexible system is put in place, perhaps some middle ground exists in which clinicians outside of the originating institution can grant temporary, role-based “passes” offering limited use to patient-identifiable substance abuse data. That is something EMRs should be well equipped to support. And if they’re not, this would be a great time to ask why!