By Kate Fodor
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) Sept 28 - The vast majority of Americans are opposed to the idea of having their medical records stored in a national computerized database, according to a Gallup Poll commissioned by The Institute for Health Freedom, a nonprofit think tank based in Washington, DC.
The telephone survey, conducted last month, questioned 1,000 adults about their opinions on medical privacy issues. Results were released at a press briefing on Tuesday.
Asked whether they would favor or oppose a requirement that all medical records be stored in a national database accessible to certain groups without patient consent, 88% of those surveyed said that they were against the idea. Ninety-five percent of responders said that doctors and hospitals should be required to have permission before releasing records to such a database.
A plan that is part of the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act would assign a so-called "health identifier number" to each patient and create a database in which medical records are tagged with a number rather than a name. Although the poll did not mention the plan by name, it found that 91% of those surveyed were opposed to the idea of creating a database that uses medical identification numbers.
Despite the relative anonymity that would be afforded by such a database, some experts have argued that, for various practical and ethical reasons, complete masking of patients' identities would be nearly impossible. In addition, a variety of individuals and agencies would, in fact, be allowed to access personally identifiable information under the system.
In June, the House and Senate voted to temporarily stop funding of efforts to assign health identifier numbers, due in part to the public's fears about loss of privacy. However, the issue "is like a jack-in-the-box," Sue Blevins, president of The Institute for Health Freedom, said during an interview with Reuters Health. "They keep putting the lid down, but the question is will it come out again or will it not?"
In the Gallop Poll, only 12% of responders said that they had heard or read anything recently about a medical identification number proposal.
However, despite a lack of specific knowledge, Americans are very clear that they want to be in control of who has access to their medical records, the survey found. Seventy-eight percent of those surveyed said that it is very important that their records be kept confidential.
In fact, there is absolutely no one - including doctors - that the majority of adults believe should have access to medical records without patients' consent.
The poll found that pharmacists were the "most acceptable" group that could have unrestricted access to the records, but 59% of those surveyed were opposed even to that access.
Banks and government agencies were among the groups that people were least likely to want to have access to their records. Ninety-five percent of those in the survey said that they wouldn't want banks to have their information without their permission, and 92% opposed giving government groups access without consent.
The desire for privacy even extended into questions about physicians and scientists. Seventy-one percent of participants in the poll were opposed to free access to medical records for doctors and 67% opposed such access for medical researchers.
"The theme has to do with consent," Blevins said. "People are very interested
in controlling information about themselves...We've had wonderful advances
in medicine under informed consent and there's no reason that just because
now we have computers and electronic data, we should get rid of it. If
anything, let's have electronic consent forms."