Few of us would be comfortable having our medical records splashed across the front page of a newspaper or posted on the Internet, for that matter. Our health matters are private and sensitive--possibly even more personal than revealing how much money we earn.
As a society, we are not so far removed from the time when people who had emotional or mental problems were stigmatized and hidden away. Then, too, our memory of the paranoia surrounding the AIDS epidemic is fairly fresh and raw.
But beyond the need to avoid embarrassment, a fundamental belief exists in our society that individuals are entitled to keep personal matters private. That's why Congress needs to stop dragging its feet and focus its attention on crafting a national medical records privacy law. A strong push from medical leaders might lead to quicker action.
Anyone who doubts the need for privacy protection has only to recall the experience of Democratic vice presidential candidate Thomas Eagleton, whose mental and emotional health became grist for the media mill during the 1972 presidential campaign. Shortly after the party convention, it was revealed that the U.S. senator from Missouri had been hospitalized on three occasions for depression and had undergone electroshock therapy. Initially, Eagleton's running mate, George McGovern, declared that he was "a thousand percent" behind Eagleton. But pressure from Democrats fearful that his history would cost them the election forced Eagleton to withdraw from the ticket.
Today, a candidate with Eagleton's history probably would find his medical records--and much more--posted on a Web site long before he had a chance to be considered for high office.
Just as George Orwell predicted in 1984, Big Brother has tightened his grip on our society, snooping into data that can be obtained with a simple computer search. Today, however, Big Brother isn't limited to the government; anyone with a modem has the capability to break the ethical boundaries of privacy.
The lightning speed of the Internet, coupled with its pervasiveness, makes it all too easy for those inclined to disseminate dirt far and wide.
Clearly, the Internet is becoming a powerful tool for providers and patients, assuring increased communication, rapid access to new clinical findings and a more active role for consumers in their own healthcare. But while many patients like the idea of calling up their medical records online, they need to understand the possible ramifications, and they need to know--without doubt--who else will have access to that information.
Failure to address the need for privacy protection will taint the huge benefits of consumerism that now are blossoming in healthcare. Individual concerns easily could be overlooked as fortunes are made in the public markets.
Physician leaders must be unwavering advocates for the privacy of patient information, whether that information is on paper or online. And they must press Congress to act--now.