Use of inmate EHRs for research raises privacy concerns

To find ways to hold down health costs and determine future health benefits, researchers now have the ability to look through de-identified electronic health record data of federal prisoners.

In a 2010 audit, the Department of Justice's Office of the Inspector General called for a plan to maintain analytical healthcare data on inmates.

Paper medical records in a prison have been a problem, reports ABC News. According David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project, prisoners often are moved from facility to facility--with that individual's medical history following slowly behind. A physician without complete medical records could, for instance, give an inmate a medication to which he or she was allergic--causing a potentially fatal reaction.

Overall, EMRs have the potential to improve the quality of care in a prison system, Fathi said. However, some questions are hovering over whether mining medical data could violate patients' rights to privacy.

For instance, last month, the Supreme Court heard arguments in over whether a private company had a First Amendment right to sell data-mining results to pharmaceutical companies. In this case, proponents of data use argued that data mining could help advance medical discoveries, while opponents said the sale could create a breach of physician-patient confidentiality.

While current laws under HIPAA protect individual medical data from being released, the "de-identified" medical data is not regulated.

The ACLU said it is not concerned about releasing prisoner data--as long the data can't identify specific inmates. Ultimately, the most important question is whether the information remains identifiable, Fathi said.

For more details:
- see the ABC News article

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