Healthcare Business News

HHS, VA go granular in info exchange demo

By Joseph Conn
Posted: September 17, 2012 - 3:45 pm ET

HHS and the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department have demonstrated the successful use of technology to persistently enforce federal patient consent requirements at the "granular" data element level, HHS announced.

The demo came in response to a 2010 call by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology to use what's called "meta-data tagging" to enhance privacy.

In theory, granular tagging could let patients give consent to the exchange of some parts of their medical record—such as a diabetes diagnosis and a corresponding drug prescription—but not other parts, such as a sexually transmitted disease diagnosis or participation in a mental health counseling session.

The system that was demonstrated was developed by the VA in collaboration with HHS' Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration as part of the data-segmentation-for-privacy initiative, which is itself a part of a broader program overseen by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology at HHS.

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The demonstration, delivered at a Health Level 7 conference last week in Baltimore and coincident with Health IT Week activities in Washington, used a privacy and security classification and coding system developed by the standards-development organization Health Level 7 and the Direct messaging protocols developed by the ONC in collaboration with private-sector partners.

The demonstration showed the standards could be used to tag and segment information based on its sensitivity and inform the recipient that "no further disclosure of the information was permitted" without again obtaining the patient's consent, said Joy Pritts, chief privacy officer with the ONC.

In August, ONC chief Dr. Farzad Mostashari announced it would fund a data-segmentation pilot for privacy, including implementation that could cover a federal privacy rule that protects the privacy rights of patients receiving drug or alcohol-abuse treatment through federally funded programs.

The obligation to seek consent each time such data is moved is a key feature of that federal rule, but is not unique in healthcare, Pritts said. Some states have similar laws where the consent obligation attaches to the data, she said.

Pritts declined to speculate on whether or when the technology might be put to general use.

"We're happy with the results of the demonstration, but it is a first step," Pritts said. "They need to do the pilot and see how it works out in real life."

Correction: An earlier version of this story listed an incorrect venue for the demonstration.

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