Federal Privacy Framework Announced for Health-IT

By Neil Versel

Feb. 26, 2008 | ORLANDO, FL — The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) is developing a framework for healthcare organizations to follow in protecting the confidentiality, privacy, and security of individual health information, in an effort to foster the trust federal officials believe is necessary to spark widespread data sharing.

Health and Human Services (HHS) secretary Mike Leavitt often talks of an interoperable “National Health Information Network” (NHIN) in which complete, relevant health records flow seamlessly between care settings, with the patient firmly in control of access to the data. “None of that will happen unless people are confident that the privacy and security of their health information are protected,” Leavitt told the annual meeting of the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society on Tuesday morning.

“The technology exists but the sociology doesn’t,” Leavitt added, specifically mentioning the lack of trust consumers seem to have in personal health records provided by their employers or health plans.

National health-IT coordinator Robert Kolodner, M.D., followed Leavitt’s address with the announcement of the framework, which he says will be available later this year. He provided few details, though Jodi Daniel, director of the ONC Office of Policy and Research, told Digital HealthCare & Productivity that the document will include guidance on how to implement best practices on data protection, and that it will play into Leavitt’s vision of sociological change at the local level.

Leavitt picked up on the oft-recited mantra of the 2008 presidential campaign, namely “change” — rather ironic for a senior member of the administration that candidates want to change from — but said the change in healthcare he is trying to promote is more substantial than the generic concept being touted in countless stump speeches. “The story here isn’t about technology, it’s about change,” he said. “Technology is a key enabler of change.”

But, Leavitt added, “I’d suggest it takes more than technology to bring change. It takes new sociology to bring change.” He said that the federal government should organize efforts to create trust in the health system, but argued that trust is built at the local level.

To this end, Leavitt spoke of a previously announced HHS plan to offer incentives via community organizations for small physician practices to adopt electronic health records. (See “CMS to Provide Financial Incentive in Program to Boost EHR Use.”)

Kolodner mentioned an ONC grant opportunity for private and public organizations to test NHIN interoperability specifications along with the federal government. He also disclosed today that the Social Security Administration would join eight other federal agencies in a real-world demonstration of NHIN data exchange set for later this year.

“This is our time. This year, vision becomes reality,” Kolodner said.

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