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Privacy rules hamper adoption of electronic medical records, study says

Choice for policy-makers may be between tough patient privacy rules and speedy EMR deployments, researchers claim

April 14, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - In a study that is unlikely to find favor among privacy advocates, researchers from two academic institutions warned that increased efforts to protect the privacy of health data will hamper the adoption of electronic medical records systems.

The study, conducted by researchers at MIT and the University of Virginia, said EMR adoption is often slowest in states with strong regulations for safeguarding the privacy of medical records.

On average, the number of hospitals deploying EMR systems was up to 30% lower in states where health care providers are forced to comply with strong privacy laws than it was in states with less stringent privacy requirements. That's because privacy rules often made it harder and more expensive for hospitals to exchange and transfer patient information, thereby reducing the value of an EMR system, the study found.

"Despite EMR's effectiveness at reducing medical errors and improving baseline indicators of patient health, hospitals are deterred from adopting it by strong health care privacy laws," the study states.

The results of the research, which looked at EMR adoption in 19 states over a 10-year period, was originally presented at a Federal Trade Commission workshop in April 2008. It was publicly released only this week following its acceptance in the journal Management Science, an MIT spokesman said.

The research suggests that there's a trade-off between achieving fast adoption of EMR technology and strong health care privacy laws, said Catherine Tucker, an assistant professor of marketing at MIT's Sloan School of Management and one of the report's authors. In general, while medical privacy is a good thing, it doesn't always allow for quick adoption of EMR systems, she said.

"What we found was that privacy laws are getting in the way of hospitals'" trying to exchange information with one another, Tucker said. "Policy-makers are going to have to choose how much EMR adoption they want and at what cost to patient privacy."

It's a viewpoint that is unlikely to sit well with privacy advocates, who are already nervous about the accelerated move to a nationwide EMR system under a health care modernization program announced by President Obama earlier this year. The Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act was introduced by Obama as part of the economic stimulus package earlier this year. It provides $20 billion for the creation of a national electronic health records system that would fundamentally improve the way health information is electronically accessed, stored and shared.

Health care security experts and privacy advocates cautiously lauded the bill for the many provisions it includes for protecting patient health care data. However, they claimed it doesn't go far enough in addressing all the privacy concerns raised by the use of EMR systems, although they have acknowledged the bill is a step in the right direction.

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