Jocelyn Samuels: Privacy and data sharing can coexist

Privacy and security will be critical to the success of both healthcare reform and President Barack Obama's Precision Medicine initiative, according to Jocelyn Samuels, director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights.

Speaking Wednesday at the Health Privacy Summit in the District of Columbia, Samuels said that going forward, privacy protections must be baked into efforts rather than added on. However, she said, while the administration is committed to ensuring such protections are present, OCR's job is more about compliance with the law.

"We're not in the business of certifying--like the Good Housekeeping seal," Samuels said. "We interpret and enforce the standards of the law."

Samuels also said that despite simultaneous desires to increase health data sharing and to keep such data more secure, it is possible to do both, calling it a "false dichotomy" that privacy and data sharing are always at odds with one another. People will only engage with the healthcare system, she said, if they have adequate protections for their sensitive information.

"I don't want to set this up as a zero-sum game where in order to get privacy you have to abandon data sharing, or in order to do data sharing you have to abandon privacy," Samuels said.

Samuels briefly talked about the HIPAA audit program, saying that OCR is moving forward with phase 2. She said OCR is using audits as a tool to get out in front of potential privacy and security problems before they occur.

OCR recently confirmed to FierceHealthIT that it already has sent pre-screening audit surveys to covered entities that could be selected to participate in the second round of the program.

When asked if OCR had enough of a budget to ramp up its efforts to meet current challenges, Samuels admitted that the agency is facing resource constraints.

"I don't want to hide the ball on that," she said. "We are really trying to streamline our operations and institute new reforms that will enable us to use the resources that we do have to [our] best advantage. We're trying to do more with less."

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