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Akron Univ. School of Law

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Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Evacuees' Health Records Go Online

Reported in today's Washington Post (note the HIPAA point at the end of the excerpt):

The federal government is making medical information on Hurricane Katrina evacuees available online to doctors, the first time private records from various pharmacies and other health care providers have been compiled into centralized databases.

The data contain records from 150 Zip codes in areas hit by Katrina. Starting yesterday, doctors in eight shelters for evacuees could go to the Internet to search prescription drug records on more than 800,000 people from the storm-racked region.

* * * The records are one step in reconstructing medical files on more than 1 million people disconnected from their regular doctors and drug stores. Officials fear that many medical records in the region, especially those that were not computerized, were lost to the storm and its aftermath.

Although the immediate focus is on urgent care for hurricane victims, participants in the effort say the disaster demonstrates a broader need to computerize individual health records nationwide and make them available throughout the medical system. Such a step could, for example, give emergency room doctors a way to quickly view medical histories for late-night accident victims.

Electronic health records are controversial among many privacy advocates, who fear the data could be exploited by hackers, companies or the government.

Ray Fowler, head of medical relief operations in Dallas, said "it was extremely scary" for doctors to have no records to rely on as thousands of evacuees poured off buses with serious injuries or infections.

Some patients had been on various medications before the hurricane, for conditions such as high blood pressure, but did not know what prescriptions they took, Fowler said.

* * * The system took about 10 days to organize, with daily conference calls involving as many as 60 state and federal officials; emergency medical providers; insurance, pharmacy and medical-software company representatives; and government lawyers.

* * * Federal regulations do not require patient consent for their records to be shared for medical purposes. Companies or organizations that have such data must have formal agreements with each other before data can be exchanged, but the government said it would not enforce those rules while Katrina victims were in need, as long at the entities had verbal agreements to use the data for the relief effort.

Thanks to Law Library Blogmaster Joe Hodnicki for this lead.  [tm]

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