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Computerised patient records raise data protection fears

The introduction of computer-based patient records in Swiss hospitals offers great advantages but raises doubts about data protection, according to a new report by the branch of the government sponsored Swiss Science Council, Technology Assessment(TA).

The report makes a number of suggestions on how to limit those risks, and on the introduction of common standards for the use of such technology.

Anne Eckhardt, author of the TA report, said that one of the proposals called for access to the data contained in records to be limited according to the healthcare personnel concerned. There should also be a time limit after which the system would not allow any changes to individual documents, in a bid to avoid the possible covering up of medical errors.

In a panel discussion at Berne's University Hospital, experts agreed that computerized patient records will be increasingly used in the coming years. But it was highlighted that while Switzerland is relatively advanced concerning the relevant technology, standards differ from canton to canton.

Doctors who already work with the system insist that computerized patient records not only offer easy access to data, but can also improve the quality of treatment. "You can instantly compare diagnoses and treatments of different groups of patients" said Eckehart Schöll, an orthopedic surgeon at the university hospital.

However, the technology also carries problems, especially in the field of data protection. At a hospital level, one expert estimated that the number of users who have access to a patient's records multiplies a hundred-fold when computer technology is introduced.

The dangers would be compounded if, and when, computer-based patient records were to be exchanged via the internet between different hospitals, specialists, or general practitioners.

"There are very serious economic interests involved with such data", said Simonetta Sommaruga, head of the foundation for consumer protection. Medical insurance companies, employers, and pharmaceutical companies are all potentially interested in obtaining data from electronic patient records.

Odilo Guntern, the Swiss government data protection official, pointed out that technical devices like sophisticated firewalls, and data protection guidelines -such as the rule that patients have to authorize their records to be stored electronically - should generally offer enough protection against misuse of the technology.

Guntern, however, added that new rules regulating the nation-wide use of computerized records were needed.

By Markus Haefliger


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