Debate Continues over Convenience versus Privacy

WASHINGTON — Even in healthcare, the battle for the hearts and minds of fickle American consumers is shaping up to be an epic struggle of convenience vs. privacy — though the scales currently seem heavily weighted toward the latter.

At least that was the general consensus among three technology executives and a few hundred healthcare industry types during a panel discussion at the World Health Care Congress Tuesday morning.

In an impromptu survey of attendees, 52 percent would want any first responder to have access to their personal health records during a medical emergency, while another 22 percent would be comfortable if a good Samaritan on the scene could read their basic medical history. “Care covers privacy in a crunch,” said the panel’s moderator, Jim Guest, president and CEO of Consumers Union.

At other times, though, privacy is the clear winner, and not necessarily for the better, according to the participants, who included Peter Neupert, corporate vice president for health strategy at Microsoft, Google vice president Adam Bosworth, and Intel chairman Craig Barrett.

“Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good,” Neupert said, invoking a popular phrase among healthcare reformers that may have originated with quality guru Donald Berwick. “We have to first start with what’s most important,” Neupert added. “Give consumers powers of choice and control.” Any secondary uses of data would not come until later anyway, he said.

The panelist seemed to agree that consumer demand for personal health information is more a concern than the technology itself. “You probably see more frustration [about the slow pace of health-IT adoption] among the high-tech folks,” said Barrett, who is a member of the American Health Information Community, a public-private advisory panel to the Department of Health and Human Services.

“It’s clear we need to inform the system,” offered Bosworth. “But the real challenge is getting the data in the first place.” Google is said to be hard at work on some form of electronic personal health record (PHR) or other consumer-centric healthcare product, but the Mountain View, Calif.-based company remains mum on the subject. 

“Honestly, the problem isn’t that there’s no data,” Bosworth added. “The problem is that the data isn’t flowing to doctors to help them make better decisions.”

In terms of privacy, Bosworth said that part of the widespread concern stems from continued “fear and misunderstanding” about what HIPAA regulations allow healthcare providers to disclose to patients, health plans, and even other providers. “They react by not doing anything,” the Google executive said. He suggested that federal legislation might be necessary to clarify some of the confusion and enable true consumer-centric healthcare.

“The government should make it clear that consumers should have control of their data,” Bosworth said.

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