The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Saturday April 1st

Medical records increasingly move online

Brings new concerns of security breaches and medical identity theft

Not many months go by for junior Mike Mistarz without a doctor visit. He’s had a jaw pain that’s taken him to seven different specialists without a diagnosis.

While physicians haven’t eased all of Mistarz’s physical pains, they have improved the consultation process through digitizing check-ups.

Electronic health records have also made bouncing from one doctor’s office to another a simpler process for Mistarz.

“I’ve had to be referred so many times from doctor to doctor, and it’s so much easier to have them sent online than have them faxed over,” he said.

Health professionals are increasingly storing medical records in the virtual cloud rather than file cabinets.

UNC Hospitals recently set up a health information exchange with IBM that connects all its medical centers. It is expected to be an example for other large medical facilities.

Dr. Glenn Withrow, who runs the private practice The Family Doctor in Rams Plaza, put in an electronic health record system in 2009 and said having interconnected charts online has also helped his work on the back end.

“Primary care’s not dealing with just one body part but the whole body, and we have to coordinate stuff between us and other specialists,” Withrow said.

The Family Doctor tracks the other doctors the patient is seeing, as well as all medications and vitamins the patient’s been prescribed by Withrow and other doctors.

Patricia Wise, vice president of the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society, said the immediate availability of electronic records can save lives.

“Think of heart tracings, or EKGs,” Wise said. “So many come in to the hospital complaining of chest pains and with heart failures and the doctors want to see a patient’s latest, but how many of us walk around with our EKGs on us?”

If a record is in a health database, the hospital can get the information it needs quickly, she said.

But with a convenient pool of sensitive information, there’s concern about medical record security and the consequences of a virtual data breach.

The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nationally recognized consumer education and advocacy nonprofit, has recorded 461 medical data breaches that have made more than 20 million medical records vulnerable since 2005.

“The more access there is, the more potential there is for some breach of security,” said Tena Friery, research director at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

Robert Berger, chief medical information officer at UNC Hospitals, said among other security measures, the medical records are encrypted, key strokes are logged and hired tech gurus spend their workdays trying to hack into the system.

Also, employees have varying access to the data, and only two people have access to the system’s mother screen that connects all the systems. Berger isn’t one of them.

“That’s about as good as it can get,” Berger said. “It’s as good as a bank.”

While personal privacy’s a concern, Friery said another worry that threatens more people is medical identity theft.

Medical record thieves can use the victim’s Social Security number and health insurance information to access medical services or file false insurance claims.

This costs the victim financially, plus could cause him or her to be treated improperly if false medical information is filed.

Withrow said he accommodates worried patients when working with other professionals by printing their prescriptions and records.

Firewalls detect outsiders attempting to enter the system daily, and UNC Hospitals hasn’t had anyone break into the system in the 20 years it’s stored information on computers, Berger said.

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