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Kill your fax machine (redux) and watch out for HIPAA violations

Today, noted medical informatics professor and professional Dr. Bill Hersh had this exchange on Twitter with his daughter, a new medical student.

 

Later today, I stopped to pick up my mail in this multi-unit building and saw this sticking out of someone else’s mailbox.

A HIPAA violation waiting to happen

A HIPAA violation waiting to happen

That’s right, it’s a “personal and confidential” letter from Quest Diagnostics, presumably either medical test results or a bill. Either way, it’s a HIPAA violation waiting to happen. In fact, it’s probably already a HIPAA violation because people now know what lab this person used. The envelope is hanging out of this mailbox because it was misdelivered and whoever got it by accident placed it there for the intended recipient. But who’s to say it does wind up in the right hands before someone opens it?

Anyone who thinks paper is still a safeguard against privacy and security breaches, raise your hand. (Crickets.) Sure, electronic transmissions can be intercepted and databases hacked, but if you take the time to encrypt them, you lessen the risk. And should there be a breach, the audit trail that HIPAA requires can help investigators pinpoint the culprit and create a disincentive for employees to leak data.

As for the fax, it’s sadly ironic that a twentysomething is encountering a fax machine for the first time when she enters a healthcare environment. Kill your fax machine! It’s 2014. Why are we still using 1980s technology to transfer health information?

January 13, 2014 I Written By

I'm a freelance healthcare journalist, specializing in health IT, mobile health, healthcare quality, hospital/physician practice management and healthcare finance.

Health reform is so much more than insurance

The headline above shouldn’t surprise regular readers or anyone who knows me. I’ve been saying for a couple of years to anyone who asks me about “Obamacare” or any other aspect of healthcare reform—and many people who haven’t asked—that the public debate and media coverage have been about insurance reform, not care reform, and health insurance is not the same thing as healthcare. I’ve publicly chided the national media, too.

Maybe that is changing. Last month, attorney Philip K. Howard, chairman of advocacy group Common Good (an organization working to “fill the substance void in the 2012 election by offering new solutions to fix broken government”), wrote in The Atlantic that no matter what the Supreme Court does with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, healthcare still will remain inefficient and expensive. “The Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, strives for universal coverage. While it encourages pilots for more efficient delivery systems, the overall effect is to exacerbate the unaffordability of American health care. In this sense, the upcoming Supreme Court decision on constitutionality is just a side skirmish,” Howard said.

In other words, as I’ve been arguing for two years, the insurance expansion of this supposed comprehensive “healthcare reform” legislation is simply throwing more money at the same problem. Having insurance doesn’t assure you good care, nor will it by itself even reduce overall costs. It just shifts costs. There was more reform in the HITECH section of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, in the form of the $27 billion incentive program for “meaningful use” of electronic health records than there is in the part of the ACA being widely debated in this election year.

That’s why, as I pointed out Friday, I was happy to see that investigative journalism organization ProPublica has started a Facebook community for people to share stories of patient harm. And today, the New York Times discussed actual healthcare quality in one of its Sunday editorials (h/t Jane Sarasohn-Kahn). The Times highlighted efforts at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and hospital alliance Premier, saying, “It is a measure of how dysfunctional the system has become that these successful experiments — based on medical sense, sound research and efficiencies — seem so revolutionary.” Indeed.

By the way, my recent, controversial post arguing that faxing should be considered malpractice isn’t a new thought I’ve had. I just rediscovered my January 2011 commentary in Columbia Journalism Review about media coverage of telephone-based “telemedicine.” I ended the piece by advising fellow journalists to “start asking the health-care organizations you cover why they still rely on old-fashioned telephones and fax machines.” Malpractice or not, legal or not, it’s more than a decade into the 21st century, yet we still view healthcare through a 20th-century lens.

Or, as I also like to say, it’s quality, stupid.

June 3, 2012 I Written By

I'm a freelance healthcare journalist, specializing in health IT, mobile health, healthcare quality, hospital/physician practice management and healthcare finance.

Faxing should be malpractice

As you undoubtedly know by now, I am now officially all about patient safety. (Thanks, by the way, for all the support in the wake of my father’s untimely death.) That’s why I was so upset to read a friend’s recent Facebook status update: “So I discovered the real reason why I was in the hospital last week (and not generally feeling well for the past 4.5 months). My doctor’s office faxed a prescription to my mail order pharmacy that was 2x the dose I was expecting.”

In case anyone has forgotten, fax is technology from the late 1980s and early ’90s. It is now 2012. I cannot remember the last time someone asked me if I had a fax number. Yet, inexplicably, this obsolete means of transmitting low-res images—images, not computable data—remains perfectly acceptable in healthcare.

Here’s a radical proposal: medical societies and state medical pharmacy boards should prohibit the use of faxes. Medical errors related to faxed documents should be considered malpractice. Period.

May 20, 2012 I Written By

I'm a freelance healthcare journalist, specializing in health IT, mobile health, healthcare quality, hospital/physician practice management and healthcare finance.