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Perpetuating Misconceptions on Patient Confidentiality

April 27, 2011
1:17 pm

Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard the case of Sorrell v. IMS Health Care which concerns a Vermont law that bans the voluntary exchange of a physician’s prescribing history.  (The Healthcare Leadership Council signed an amicus brief in this case, advocating that the Vermont law be invalidated.  We joined a number of individuals and organizations, including the Associated Press, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and two former HHS Secretaries in doing so.)  This could have been an opportunity to illuminate the often-confusing issue of patient privacy laws for the public but, unfortunately, some of what I’ve heard has done just the opposite.

Vermont Public Radio did an interview yesterday with the state’s attorney general regarding his defense of the law restricting information exchange. (You can hear the interview here.) He compared the release of a physician’s prescribing history to allowing someone to paw through your tax returns.  I’ll admit that if I heard that and didn’t know better, I’d be petitioning the Supreme Court to strengthen the Vermont law instead of striking it down.  But, nowhere in the interview did the attorney general mention the fact that the medical information at the heart of the Sorrell case is all de-identified.  There is no use of names, addresses or any other data that could be used to identify an individual.  So, instead of taking the opportunity to help the public better understand how de-identified health data can be used to improve healthcare quality and advance medical research, we see the use of scare tactics that are not grounded in fact. 

On a more positive front, the tenor of the questioning by the Supreme Court Justices yesterday seemed to indicate they are leaning toward striking down the Vermont law which, as we said in our amicus brief, “makes it harder, not easier for healthcare professionals to identify and reduce the substantial variations that exist in the delivery of healthcare services and the considerable health disparities that affect the lives of many Americans.”

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