Many people are aware that health information may be privileged, but few – including some physicians – fully understand what that means. The physician-patient privilege (and the sometimes separate psychotherapist-patient privilege) offers some protections for confidential communications between physician and patient.
Health records, like just about any other record containing personal information held by a third party, can be subpoenaed under a variety of circumstances. For example, a consumer’s records could be sought in a tort suit (e.g., auto accident or medical malpractice), in a divorce or other family lawsuit, or sought if the records are relevant to someone else’s lawsuit. The rules governing subpoenas for health records are complex, and HIPAA includes some significant procedural protections.
Perhaps the biggest single concern about commercial PHRs is the possibility that a consumer’s health information will leak into the marketing system. The terms under which a PHR operates could allow the sale or rental of consumer information in the same way that magazines, catalog companies, magazines, charities, or other merchants and activities share information with limited or no consumer knowledge or consent. Consumers generally have some sense about how readily companies and agencies pass personal information around, but they do not expect the same kind of sharing when it comes to personal health information.
Some PHRs present themselves as a depository of health information under the control of the consumer. The suggestion is that the records have inherent privacy protections because the consumer has some choices or control over the record, including who may see, add to, or change the record. By contrast, covered entities under HIPAA can disclose health records to many institutions for many purposes without consumer consent. That is one of the controversial aspects of HIPAA. HIPAA allows many disclosures without the consent of – and indeed over the objections of – the consumer.
Some privacy protections exist because independent health care providers maintain separate records about consumers. A dentist has one set of records; a family doctor has another set. It will often be the case that the two sets of records are not linked or shared routinely. However, those who obtain health care from a single health maintenance organization may already have centralized records. Linkage of health records offers some advantages, but not all linkages are necessarily welcome to consumers.