Patient Autonomy and Personal Health Records

By Frank Pasquale
In Electronic Medical Records
December 9, 2010
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pasquale1I recently gave remarks as part of a panel at the roundtable “Personal Health Records: Understanding the Evolving Landscape,” sponsored by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC). There were many interesting speakers, including some of the leading businesses in the PHR space and regulators from FTC, HHS, and the California state Office of Privacy Protection. The roundtable exposed the promise–and limits–of a personalized health record model. Databases may help both public health and patient care, but the many stakeholders in PHR’s may have very different views about how much control patients should have over the presentation of their medical selves in everyday life.

Discussions about health records can get forbiddingly abstract and technical, but a real-world dilemma can help concretize the problem. As Lisa Wangsness’s Boston Globe article shows, at least one individual feels “burned” by his effort to quickly port past data into a PHR:

When Dave deBronkart, a tech-savvy kidney cancer survivor, tried to transfer his medical records from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center to Google Health, a new free service that lets patients keep all their health records in one place and easily share them with new doctors, he was stunned at what he found. Google said his cancer had spread to either his brain or spine — a frightening diagnosis deBronkart had never gotten from his doctors — and listed an array of other conditions that he never had, as far as he knew, like chronic lung disease and aortic aneurysm. A warning announced his blood pressure medication required “immediate attention.” “I wondered, ‘What are they talking about?’ ” said deBronkart . . .[He] eventually discovered the problem: Some of the information in his Google Health record was drawn from billing records, which sometimes reflect imprecise information plugged into codes required by insurers.

According to one doctor consulted by the Globe, “an inaccurate diagnosis of gastrointestinal bleeding on a heart attack patient’s personal health record could stop an emergency room doctor from administering a life-saving drug.” For the critically or chronically ill, the record is literally a life-or-death matter.

Admittedly, the level of personal control an individual has over a PHR also offers a solution to this problem. If we follow the same model as credit reporting, patients should be able to review their reports without charge, and make corrections. The Markle Foundation has done a superb job highlighting the importance of accountable health technology. But, as the Center for Democracy and Technology argues, rulemaking on EHRs will need to build in a number of consumer safeguards to assure that other stakeholder interests do not trump patients’ interests.

The CDT recommends that HHS require “PHR providers to provide opportunities for consumers to amend, correct or annotate information in a PHR,” and “to have policies for handling disputes concerning information in the PHR.” CDT expands on the obligation in these paragraphs:

Many PHRs contain data from two categories of sources: copies of information obtained from members of the traditional health system (including health care providers, insurers, etc.) and data generated or acquired by consumers themselves, whether directly entered by them, or fed into the PHR by devices or
other sources that are not part of the traditional health care system (including data from a monitoring device that the consumer operates, from a commercial Web site, or from a consumerʼs own health-related observations).

Policies governing disputes about the validity of data should draw a distinction between these different categories of data. With respect to copies of data that users might not be permitted to change directly (including but not limited to data that originates with members of the traditional health system), users should be given a way to attach notes or complaints to the PHR disputing the validity of the data – and the note should remain appended to the data any time it is disclosed from the PHR. (This is similar to how the HIPAA Privacy Rule treats patient amendment of data in covered entity records.) PHR vendors also should consider mechanisms for communicating patient disputes about data back to the original source for consideration.

Even in a world where PHR’s are ubiquitous, there’s almost certainly going to be some “objective health record” in the medical system about any individual. (And, if key software engineers get their way, there will be a unique “personal health identifier” for everyone once health records systems are up and running.) So why should the integrity of PHRs matter to anyone other than the person recording them?

First, the more legible, portable, and useful PHRs are, the more they may displace other records of patient information. Emergency rooms may only have a chance to look at one HR–the one given to them by the patient they are treating.

Second, we can assume that as PHR’s become a bigger part of larger employers’ cost-control programs, they are going to want to make sure that “quantified selves” are accurately reporting their health efforts and achievements. Health reform has taken a “preventive turn,” and the ACA gives employers new latitude to reward and punish employees:

Although it prohibits insurers from charging higher premiums based on an individual’s health risks, it allows them to charge a smoker as much as 50 percent more than a nonsmoker. It also permits employers to increase rewards for participation in wellness and disease-prevention programs from 20 percent to 30 percent of the costs of insurance premiums.

To verify participation, an employer may want access to an employee’s PHR, particularly if it is much easier for its own computer systems to read and understand than the “objective health record” existing in the health care system itself. Yet the employer may also want to ensure that the PHR is populated by materials validated by third parties (such as doctors’ offices, fitness clubs, scales, or blood sugar monitors). Presently, this is not a major issue; as Nicolas Terry warns, “sharing or exchange of data between PHRs and providers or their EMRs is as speculative as it is controversial.” However, technological advances could promote PHRs with inputs from providers, apps, and even RFID chips. What happens if the employer tries to condition participation in a wellness program on an employee’s agreement not to try to change whatever is reported by those “trusted” third parties?

The CDT suggests some principles that should guide this situation as well. They recommend that:

Employers, health plans, and others should be explicitly prohibited from requiring individuals to open PHR accounts as a condition of employment, membership, or for any other reason. PHR accounts should also not be routinely opened for consumers who do not explicitly activate them, as this can expose personal data to uses not necessarily anticipated by the consumer. Similarly, consumers should not be compelled to disclose the information held within the PHR, or whether they are using a PHR, without due process of law.

I believe these “compulsion” points should go beyond the decision to open a PHR, to the more granular rights and responsibilities associated with the maintenance of one. However many times employers sing the praises of contract law, the truth remains that employees in this tight labor market have very little bargaining power. That’s one reason why Nicholas P. Terry’s recommendation of inalienable rights to control data in the PHR context was one of the most provocative and compelling comments at the roundtable.

I am not here advocating for complete autonomy of the patient over records in all contexts. As Sharona Hoffman has argued, in the realm of treatment, there are important rationales for prioritizing the independent medical judgment of professionals whose first obligation is to maintain health:

If patients are empowered to opt out of EHR use or to disallow treating physicians’ access to their records, they may lose much of the benefit of computerization. Many clinicians would continue to care for patients in ignorance of essential facts that could make the difference between appropriate and inappropriate treatment decisions. For example, it might seem at first blush that most physicians would not need access to a patient’s psychiatric records. However, a psychiatric diagnosis may help other specialists better understand the patient’s symptoms, and the patient’s complete drug list, including psychiatric drugs, is vital for purposes of safely prescribing additional medications.

Some commentators at the roundtable also offered creative solutions for the “sensitive health data” conundrum raised by Hoffman; for example, a patient could include an “envelope” in their EHR or PHR that would only be opened in case of emergency, or when authorized directly by the patient. Regardless of how one feels about this issue, outside the treatment context, it is critical for consumers to have reasonable opportunities to review, correct, and withhold their personal health records.

When all is said and done, people have to “buy in” to EHR for it to work effectively, and rational individuals are going to avoid any system where medical history can be as effective as credit history at denying them opportunities. One commentator at the roundtable said that her patients “didn’t care” about health data or security; they just wanted some quick and dirty method of digitizing their records. However compelling this perspective may seem for those “on the front lines,” the perils of “wikileaked world” should end any complacency about the use and misuse of computer records. We should avoid the temptation of letting cut-rate or subpar EHR and PHR systems develop, especially since they are likely to target the most vulnerable patients. Robust regulatory requirements can spark a race to the top for data privacy and security.

In the film Sleep Dealer, a laborer encounters a “memory recorder,” a computerized transcription machine that translates past experiences into video re-enactments. The machine occasionally blanks out as the laborer narrates his story, and its operator chides him to “be more truthful,” to hew closer to the actual truth of the matter. The film is ambiguous as to whether the machine, its operator, or the laborer himself have real access to what actually happened. In the treatment context, best practices may inevitably consign us to a messy, multi-stakeholder effort to set forth the “real truth” of a health record. However, the personal health record should be primarily a project of the person it describes, with no undue influence from the growing number of reputation raters and shapers with a pecuniary interest in particular representations of that person.

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One Response to “Patient Autonomy and Personal Health Records”

  1. JohnLopresti says:

    I appreciate the many caveats in the post.

    Somewhat related to those cogent points, are the following diffuse observations.

    In some quarters, quality-control-based editing of medical transcription constitutes an insidious dumbing down of doctors’ work. I have familiarity with one dominant entity in this clerical portion of the medical records accuracy landscape, notorious for enforcing application of such filters. The net effect became a reduction in clerical quality, as well.

    Further, having listened to 100,000s of medical reports, often 1,000s by the same doctor, often I have wondered if medical ethics review searches for boilerplate language employed by one practitioner but applied to many patients.

    Additionally, and perhaps more germane to the themes of the post and the roundtable event, there are all gradations of meticulousness within the medical profession itself, as with many endeavors upon which careers are constructed. Often I have wondered how much collateral damage a procedure caused actually got into a dictated report by the doctor. Collegiality often saccharinizes what gets dictated, when several practitioners with the same patient must address sequelae of each other’s interventions.

    For example, if a lax gastroenterologist misses some optical images from an exam procedure, and, further, adds new damage caused by instrumentation, how does the ordinary patient detect the inaccuracies? Who screens the standardized, privatized medical health record for quality of examiners? Are examiners ranked? How closely do mecidal ethics watchdog bodies scrutinize practitioners’ work.

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