How Safe Is Your Electronic Health Information?

What the switch from paper to electronic records means

pregnant woman on computer

Over the last few years, you may have noticed that your healthcare provider, who once carried a clipboard and pen, now uses a computer to document your appointments.

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This is a sweeping, mandated change. By 2015, providers who do not transition to an electronic medical record will be penalized according to the Health Information for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HITECH), which was signed by President Barack Obama in 2009.

Since HITECH was passed, healthcare providers across the country have been quickly adopting electronic medical records to store, retrieve and modify your medical information.

The upswing is that electronic medical records are proven to improve both the quality and efficiency of healthcare delivery. But you might ask: What does the transition from paper to PC means for the safety and privacy of your medical information?

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Defining terms

What is an electronic medical record and how is it different from a personal health record? Here’s a little background:

  • An electronic medical record, or EMR, is a tool used by a healthcare provider or organization to gather, manage and store patients’ health information. It gives clinicians full access to your medical information so they can make the most informed decision about the care they provide to you.
  • A personal health record, or PHR, is an electronic tool that you can voluntarily use to enter your own health information in order to store and organize it.
  • Some healthcare organizations now offer secure, Internet-based tools that can give you access to your medical history, immunization records, past appointments and even test results, directly from your provider’s electronic medical record.

“You can feel confident using an online health management tool offered through your healthcare organization because it is managed by clinicians. This means the information, added by your direct caregivers, is accurate and private,” says Lori Posk, MD, Physician Lead for MyChart®, Cleveland Clinic’s secure, online health management tool for patients.

How private is your health information?

Dr. Posk adds that the transition from paper to computer can actually improve the security of your personal health information. Here’s why:

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  • Required logins. Care providers have to log in with a username and password to access a patient’s electronic medical record. Healthcare organizations can easily track, audit and control who sees your information.
  • Advanced encryption technology. Electronic medical records and personal health records are specially designed to protect patients’ privacy and guard against security breaches using the same kind of encryption technology applied to online banking. Electronic medical information is actually less vulnerable than a paper chart that circulates around a facility or is in your hands.
  • Built-in backups. Storing health information electronically ensures that it is always backed up in case of a fire, flood or other incident.
  • Legal protection. All medical records, both paper and electronic, are legal documents protected by HIPAA, an act that sets the standard for the privacy and security of health data.

3 tips to ensure security of your electronic health information

Here are a few ways you can be proactive in making sure your electronic health information is safe and secure:

  1. Know who can access the information. Doctors, nurses and anyone providing care to you can access your medical information, whether electronic or on paper, to ensure you’re receiving safe, proper treatment. Remember, these healthcare professionals follow HIPAA guidelines when accessing your information to ensure privacy. You always have the right to access your personal health information. You can also sign an authorization form to designate family members or caregivers to access your health information on your behalf.
  2. Be aware at all times.When accessing or entering personal health information online, be sure that you are using a web address that starts with https:// rather than http://. (The “s” stands for “secure.”) Review privacy policies before providing your personal health information for surveys or screenings on health websites.
  3. Ask questions. “Healthcare providers are very knowledgeable about the security of your health information,” says Dr. Posk. “Never be afraid to ask your physician to review his or her privacy policy with you or inquire about how your information may be shared across a large organization.”

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