As Edward Snowden “flees” to Hong Kong for some stupid reason after disclosing a tremendous amount of classified information, Americans are left to to wonder what the federal government knows about our internet usage, telephone calls, and other assorted electronic usage. For those of us who basically go online to find out what other people have found online, this will not be a particularly big deal. For others, it raises numerous red flags about why we’re being tracked in the first place.
What has come to my mind this week, though, is concern about the security of electronic medical records. Starting in 2015, doctors who choose to maintain medical records by hand will receive reduced Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement. Since these rates are already low, it’s pretty much a given that someone in your doctor’s office has finally learned how to turn on a computer. But thanks to Edward Snowden, who had been at his company for roughly 5 months before exposing the PRISM program, it’s also pretty clear that basic technological security in the United States has hit an embarrassing low point.
Still, whether you like it or not, your medical records are going to be on a computer somewhere. Any standard Edward Snowden (with impressive technical skills and a CIA top secret clearance) can come in and steal them. I’m not sure what anyone’s going to do with those unless a hacker wants you dead or your insurance company has started hiring hit men, but who knows?
And yes, certain probably-guilty-of-helping-the-government-spy-on-you search engines were at one point trying to convince you that Google was an awesome, safe place to store your medical history. This doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in big brother. Besides, how many times have you forgotten to log out of Google on a public computer?
But the truth is, electronic medical records may actually be safer than paper records. Unlike a large government agency that is probably spying on you for no good reason, the doctor was going to be looking at your medical history, anyway. EMR is just a better way to manage and keep track of the history you don’t want to have to retell to the next doctor, whereas you probably weren’t concerned about showing all of your recent international phone calls to President Obama and Speaker Boehner. People can still steal paper medical records. They can steal your phone bill, too, but they’re not going to get a record of what you’re talking about that way.
Edward Snowden’s ability to reveal massive state secrets should alert all of us to put our guards up and maybe be more careful about what information we’re sharing electronically. Fears about security related to EMR have existed for years and are only going to get worse as this story unfolds, But don’t forget that your medical records, if not already online, are currently lying in a locked drawer that can be opened with a crowbar. Snowden’s revelations are scary, but your medical records are going to get written down somewhere no matter what (and thank goodness!). It’s unlikely someone is going to want to steal them, but if they do, remember that any common criminal can open a drawer. If someone’s going to steal my medical records, let’s at least make sure he or she is a former CIA analyst with top secret clearance.