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In digitizing healthcare, a battle over patient privacy

US lawmakers argue over how to balance the benefits of electronic medical records with privacy needs.

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The economic stimulus bill before Congress is certain to include billions of dollars to bring electronic record keeping to the healthcare industry, moving patients' records and doctors' prescriptions out of the era of carbon-paper triplicates and undecipherable handwriting.

It's an efficiency that's expected to bring down healthcare costs and add jobs. But it's also a way for researchers and others working to improve overall healthcare outcomes to gain access to millions of patients' medical records – and therein lies the rub.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate are currently waging a battle over how to ensure that a patient's very private medical history is protected, even as they allot the money for an information technology (IT) system that makes widespread sharing of that history easier.

"The two overarching goals … are to improve the privacy and security of health information, and at the same time, improve research using such information," says Bernard Lo, professor of medical ethics at the University of California at San Francisco at a press conference last week on the current medical privacy law.

Going electronic

For President Obama, the need to spend at least $20 billion over two years for an IT upgrade at clinics and hospitals is clear.

"We're still using paper. We're still filing things in triplicate. Nurses can't read prescriptions that doctors have written out," he said Tuesday during a prime-time televised press conference. "Why wouldn't we want to put that on an electronic medical record that will reduce error rates, reduce our long-term costs of healthcare, and create jobs right now?"

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