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Health care, privacy and connectivity

By David Houle 
web posted February 20, 2012

America seems to be conflicted about privacy. We all say we want it but then our actions contradict our words. We post very personal information on social media sites, telling the world when we will be on vacation and not at home, displaying pictures of being intoxicated with friends, and revealing information about our families. We regularly use mobile phones long after it became widely known that cell phone conversations were much more easily hacked that those on land lines.

Today, if you want complete privacy do not use credit cards, the Internet, mobile phones, or ATM machines. Speak only in person, use cash and leave no records of any movement or transactions. This of course is ludicrous! We demand convenience and are always seduced by the latest technological gadget. Basically, the definition of privacy is mutable. One hundred years ago, when landline phones were starting to become widespread, the two greatest fears that kept people from getting a phone were a fear of invasion of privacy and information overload. Sound familiar? What our grandparents would have considered privacy is practically non-existent today.

Whenever we are confronted with a new technology that speeds up communication and therefore the transfer of information, we seem to become concerned for a period of time and then accept the new reality. To think today that our grandparents resisted getting a land line because of fears of privacy  --  remember the first iteration of the land line phone was the party line- or information overload seems quaint.

It is this context in which we must view some recent concerns about the privacy of electronic medical records. The media has, as usual, amplified some breaches of privacy relative to medical records being on-line. Of course this is not something that is good. It is however something that we have accepted most everywhere in our life. We are scared of identity theft but continue to go on-line and share personal information. We speak about privacy and then share intimate details of our personal lives in places that are in fact, quite public.

In America today, only 20 percent of all medical records are electronic. That is why whenever you go to a doctor's office you are handed a clipboard so that once again you can completely fill out your health record as it is not available except in some other doctor's office in a physical file folder. What if you did your banking at a bank that had multiple branches and every time you went into a new branch you had to fill out a clipboard of information before you were allowed to do a transaction? Nonsensical! So why do we accept it in health care?

Today it is very common to send medical records via a fax machine, where the fax sits there for anyone to read it that might pass by or pick it up. That doesn't sound very private to me, but somehow that openness has not spawned sensational stories in the media.

Health care represents 17.4 percent of America's GDP, rounding up to twenty percent. What that means is that all of the technological innovation, connectivity, and convenience of the 80 percent of the GDP that we have come to accept are now coming to health care. The connectivity we demand, the comparative search we practice every day, the ability to move digital files with ease in the 80 percent of our economy is now coming to health care. Connectivity is now coming to health care. This is a profound development, one that will increase health and save lives, pure and simple.

If, for example, you were in a car accident and lost consciousness, would you not want the paramedics and emergency room physician to quickly find out through your electronic medical records that giving you a certain common drug might kill you because you are allergic to it? Every year in America, 100,000 people die in hospitals due to medical errors of one sort or another. A significant percentage of these are due to a simple lack of knowledge of the patient's medical history. Having your medical history, your electronic medical record, available as needed to any health care practitioner could be a matter of life or death for you.

There are always trade-offs. Post something on Facebook might later embarrass you or keep you from getting a job you want. That is unfortunate, but not a matter of life and death. The inevitable movement to connectivity and digitization of health care information will not eliminate the potential for breaches of privacy (which already exists in today's world of paper records) and we should strive to prevent that as much as possible just as we do in the 80 percent of our economy that is not health care. Digitization of medical records and the connectivity that allows them to be accessed as needed is part of the future of health care. Given a choice between an occasional breach of privacy or an inadvertent death, I chose life with a possible loss of privacy. Perceived privacy that frankly never really existed with paper records either. ESR

David Houleco-author of The New Health Age: The Future of Health Care in America, is known as the "CEO's futurist." He has spoken to or advised more than 1,800 CEOs. Globally he is one of the most sought after futurist speakers today, having delivered more than 350 speeches on four continents since 2007. He is the author of the acclaimed The Shift Age and Shift Ed: A Call for Action for Transforming K-12 Education. He began writing his groundbreaking futurist blog www.evolutionshift.com in 2006. For more information please visit http://www.thenewhealthage.com/, and follow the author on Twitter.© 2011 David Houle, co-author of The New Health Age: The Future of Health Care in America





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