Two reports released Tuesday by the inspector general of the Health and Human Services Department find that the drive to connect hospitals and doctors so they can share patient data electronically is being layered on a system that already has glaring privacy problems. Connecting it up could open new pathways for hackers, investigators say.
The market for illicit health care information is booming. In recent years, the case of a former UCLA Medical Center worker who sold details from the files of actress Farah Fawcett, singer Britney Spears and others to the National Enquirer gained notoriety.
Most cases don’t involve celebrities or get much attention. Yet fraudsters covet health care records, since they contain identifiers such as names, birth dates and Social Security numbers that can be used to construct a false identity or send Medicare bogus bills.
The shortcomings in the system “need to be addressed to ensure a secure environment for health data,” said the main report, adding that the findings “raise concern” about the effectiveness of security safeguards for personal health care information.
In a second, related report, auditors "examined computer security at seven large hospitals in different states and found 151 security vulnerabilities, from ineffective wireless encryption to a taped-over door lock on a room used for data storage. The auditors classified 4 out of 5 of the weaknesses uncovered as “high impact,” meaning they could result in costly losses, even injury and death."
The hospitals were located in 7 states, including Massachusetts, but were not identified in the report.
I have a call in to Dr. David Blumenthal, the former National Coordinator for Health Information Technology at HHS, who recently left his post (just in time!) to return to Massachusetts General Hospital, on whether he agrees that the rush toward EMR's is overlooking serious security gaps. I'll post his response when I get it.
This program aired on May 17, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.