Will your electronic medical record be safe?

By: Molly Edmonds

We'll share anything online -- except for our health records.
We'll share anything online -- except for our health records.
Emmanuel Faure/Photodisc/Getty Images

In today's world, many people think nothing of oversharing. We vie to be cast on reality TV shows so that cameras will follow us around every minute. We document our daily activities on our Twitter feeds, post party pictures on Facebook and upload videos of marriage proposals to YouTube. Sometimes, it seems like there's nothing we won't share with our fellow citizens.

But mention the current effort to digitize health records and create a system of electronic medical files, and even the most committed technophile may shudder. There's something about converting from old-fashioned paper charts that makes people nervous. Survey after survey has shown that U.S. citizens don't trust systems of electronic medical records, but it's a fear that we'll have to conquer, because these systems are on their way. The 2009 economic stimulus bill included billions of dollars to create electronic medical records for every citizen.


Electronic medical records promise a wealth of benefits. They'll cut the ballooning administrative costs that overwhelm our health care system, and they'll also help doctors provide better care. Rather than having to struggle to remember the last time you had a tetanus shot or all of the medications you've ever taken, doctors will be able to access that information with a few clicks of a computer mouse. With this data at their fingertips, they can avoid ordering duplicative tests or prescribing the wrong medication. Health care professionals will be better able to monitor the preventive care patients need for their age and gender, and they'll also be able to collaborate with other physicians to manage chronic conditions.

It may sound like a good deal, but it's perfectly reasonable to have questions about the privacy of these records. Would a network like this be safe from hackers? Could all of your information end up on the Internet? And what about the most sensitive aspects of your health history -- things like abortions, drug abuse and mental health conditions -- does everyone have to see those?

The stimulus bill that included the funds for electronic medical records included a set of privacy standards that these records must meet, which the Obama administration is in the midst of finalizing. While we await the ultimate rules, let's take a look at the potential safeguards.