Keep health data private

Patients don’t need government taking control of their personal medical records

Those who think the government’s tentacles have not strangled enough of American health care should pay heed to developments in health information technology. Health information technology evangelists complain that U.S. health care is “fragmented” and can only be “integrated” by massive, government-led investment in electronic, personal health records.

Michael Leavitt, U.S. secretary of health and human services, understands that patients need information on prices and quality, but cannot let go of the idea that the government should run health care. He dismisses the idea of government as “proprietor” of health care but welcomes it as “organizer.”

This chilling vision resulted in the 2004 appointment of a national coordinator for health information technology. The health czar, needless to say, revels in complexity.

As many as 12 different federal agencies overlap on health information technology, resulting in mountains of committee reports, rules, guidelines and standards.

In 2005, the RAND Corp. estimated that we could save $77 billion annually if health information technology were properly implemented — less than 5 percent of health spending. “If properly implemented” remains a daunting phrase.

Still, we do have an opportunity, through technological innovation, to reduce costs and improve quality by orchestrating adoption of a complex suite of information products across thousands of hospitals, doctors’ offices and laboratories. And we’ve put the government in charge — probably not a smart move.

In 1996, Congress passed the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which turned out to be a gold mine for lawyers and consultants, and irrelevant to the quality of health care.

But at the time, politicians promised us portable, secure electronic health records. It still has not happened and never will as long as we wait for top-down, government-driven innovation.

First, not every patient wants his or her health information available to anyone who can hack into the Department of Health and Human Services Web site or steal a laptop computer from a health bureaucrat’s car.

Second, secretary Leavitt’s vision suggests that Medicare will not pay doctors who don’t get on board with his electronic health records. Who is he trying to kid? As soon as those doctors tell their patients that they won’t be able to treat them anymore because they refuse to bring a government-mandated computer into their practice, the headwinds of protest will put a stop to that.

Doctors know that the easier it is for the government to get information about their medical practices, the easier it will be for the government to tell them how to practice medicine. On the other hand, some in the private sector are already offering electronic health records.

CapMed, a division of Bio-Imaging Technologies Inc., offered its first commercial health records more than a decade ago, and the past few years have seen a flurry of entrepreneurial, decentralized activity. Five large private companies, including Intel and Pitney Bowes, have collaborated on a platform, “Dossia,” which they launched in 2006.

AOL founder Steve Case’s Revolution Health, Microsoft and of course Google are rolling out electronic health records whose features are still largely “works in progress.”

The last thing the country needs is for these ventures to get bogged down in government-run task forces and gummed up in regulations forcing them to manage information the government wants instead of what patients and health professionals need.

Beware Bureaucrats

Beneficial health information technology will come about when we put patients in charge of their own health care decision-making. This will be achieved by giving them the dollars that the government and our employers have taken from us to deliver health-care “systems” of their choosing.

While it’s always better to have good information, beware the bureaucrat bearing statistics. Your health depends on it.

John R. Graham is director of health care studies at the Pacific Research Institute.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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