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Encrypt or De-identify PHI

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Which One Just Might Work?

[By Darrell K. Pruitt; DDS]pruitt

The United States’ advancement in Healthcare Information Technology, which has the potential to lead to wonderful money-saving cures through research using trustworthy interoperable health records, is currently stopped cold by patient security problems that are only getting worse. Our lawmakers cannot get around the security obstacle without resorting to authoritarian means using CMS’s power to withhold providers’ discounted payments and threats of obscene fines from the HHS and the FTC. History shows that tyranny is not tolerated well in this part of the world. Lawmakers can get their butts voted smooth out of office in my neighborhood.


Here is something nobody mentions: Despite the current hope in a thick, political fantasy called HITECH, encryption of patients’ Protected Health Information [PHI] is a non-starter in the land of the free. Everyone knows that resourceful, cynical Americans will simply never trust encryption to protect their secrets, and will reliably withhold important information from their eMRs – one way or another. Doctors as well as patients can be expected to go out of their way to sabotage technology they fear. We all intuitively know this is true, don’t we? We aren’t so naïve to think all the players will happily play by the rules, are we? And I think we can all agree that an untrustworthy digital health record in an emergency room is worse than no patient information at all. Security is a grand problem with eMRs that started with HIPAA changes in 2003 that made eHRs so slippery. And the problem is clearly not being resolved. Not yet.

Public Lacks Trust 

Regardless of the campaign donations which follow him, there is nothing Newt Gingrich and his entrepreneurial friends in high places can do about the public’s lack of trust in encryption. It gets worse: Encryption hasn’t a chance of isolating PHI from dishonest employees in doctors’ offices, and slippery digital patient data can be moved soo easily. Everyone knows that as well, don’t they? It is estimated that two-thirds of the identities stolen in the nation are lifted from doctors’ offices. That’s us, Doc. HIPAA is not only irrelevant, it is an expensive distraction – it gives future ID theft victims a false sense of security.

HIPAA Approved 

De-identifying digital records is not mentioned in HITECH as a HIPAA-approved method of security. Yet it is the ONLY solution that promises to be even more secure than paper records. Because of heavy stakeholder stakes in hospital care, it will take longer for CEO-types to embrace patient-friendly de-identification. Other than identifiers such as names, social security numbers, birthdates, addresses and other items that have street value, NOBODY cares what is in a dental record. I actually think this opens a tremendous opportunity for someone courageous in the Texas Dental Association to discuss the feasibility of de-identification of dental records. Otherwise, instead of leading the nation in solving security problems, the TDA will look just as stupid as the ADA.

Encryption would also provide a dangerous false sense of security in eMRs – that is if it had a chance in the marketplace. But encryption will never go far because consumers simply won’t buy it. That is a marketplace fact that stoically optimistic HIT stakeholders are trying hard to avoid. They also know they are running out of time. Deadlines are quickly approaching for both HIPAA and the Red Flags Rule that providers are far from prepared for.

Former Attorney Speaks 

Bill Lappen, a former attorney and author of the ad I copied below, as well as a partner with his brother David in the de-identified health record venture says: “Since no identifying information is ever entered, a hacker can’t determine whose information is shown.”

So in addition to protecting one’s practice against dishonest or vindictive employees, de-identification of dental records would make hacking a dentist’s computer a complete waste of time, and hackers wouldn’t endanger dental patients and bankrupt dentists.

My Confidence 

I confidently tell you that soon, someone smart will come upon the unprecedented idea that the ultimate answer to our security problem in healthcare will be de-identification of medical records, not encryption. De-identification allows a compromise of privacy for only a miniscule percentage of physicians’ patients. We cannot allow that to stand in the way of better health for everyone else. Those special cases are so few that I am confident that they can be dealt with individually. We simply must move forward. I’ll have to retire some day. I may need help from Medicare.

Encryption gives us only danger and protects nobody but a thief with a key.


We’ve wasted enough time on HITECH and HIPAA, as well as CCHIT. It’s time to say no to stakeholders and pay attention to patients’ needs instead of those who would needlessly increase the cost of their care. Stimulus money attracts cockroaches.

In the name of Hippocrates, disregard the tainted HIPAA mandate. It is dangerous, and especially absurd in dentistry.

Link: http://www.theopenpress.com/index.php?a=press&id=58568

Life-Saving Patient Information can be Online, Anonymous and Usable

Published on: September 26th, 2009 12:19am

By: blappen

Los Angeles, CA (OPENPRESS) September 26, 2009 — Hospital Emergency Rooms need instant access to patient medical information. Allergic reactions and dangerous drug interactions can be deadly. Time is critical. Until now, privacy was a large concern. Two brothers, who have developed medical software over the past 15 years, think they have a simple first step towards moving patient information on to the internet.

“The ER doesn’t need to look up the information by patient name” said Bill Lappen, a former attorney. “We have implemented secure systems in the past, but no matter how secure we make the site, we have to assume that it will be hacked” added David Lappen, a computer design engineer from Stanford. “But providing instant access to life-saving information is too important to ignore”, he added. To protect patient privacy, their system does not know to whom the medical information belongs. Since the person’s identifying information is never on the system, it can’t be stolen. “By enabling anonymous entry, we have protected people’s privacy while allowing them to put their life-saving information in a place where it can be instantly accessed when needed”, added Bill Lappen.

www.AMCC.me is the public service website they created. It allows anyone to enter medical information anonymously. The site provides a random ID which the user carries in his/her wallet. For someone to see that user’s medical information, they merely enter the ID into the site. Unless the user has given them their ID, the information shown is meaningless. That same information, when associated with a patient, can save their life.

Since no identifying information is ever entered, a hacker can’t determine whose information is shown. “Secure patient-controlled Electronic Medical Records are now available on the internet” said David Lappen. A sample ID has been set up on the site to allow users to evaluate the concept before setting up their own free ID.


Bill Lappen


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