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Australians' medical treatment impacted by privacy concerns

A survey commissioned by FairWarning has revealed concern around privacy breaches can negatively impact on patient treatment.

Australians are withholding information from healthcare practitioners due to concerns about the security of their personal data, resulting in variations in the treatment they receive, according to a recent survey.

A total of 1015 people were surveyed by New London Consulting for healthcare security firm FairWarning, with the respondents asked 30 questions on how their privacy concerns impacted on their healthcare decisions, such as where they seek healthcare treatment from and who they receive it from in Australia.

Nearly half (49.1 per cent) said they have withheld or would withhold information from carers that have a poor track record of protecting patient privacy. A total of 57.9 percent stated if they were on their way to a hospital and discovered it had breached patient information, they would choose another hospital to receive treatment.

A total of 38.2 per cent said they would also postpone seeking care for a medical condition due to privacy concerns with healthcare providers.

Kurt Long, founder and CEO of FairWarning, said privacy concerns are impacting the information healthcare practitioners receive and diagnoses they make.

“Trust is the bedrock upon which the patient-care provider relationship is founded and when privacy considerations influence that relationship, patient care and treatment outcomes are impacted,” he said.

“The most substantial and important finding of all the surveys is that trust in the confidentiality of medical records influences when, where, from whom and what kind of medical treatment is delivered to patients.”

While Long believes Australian healthcare providers are committed to protecting patients’ personal data, he said public breaches can cause reputational damage to healthcare providers and damage trust.

“Patient treatment in modern healthcare is entirely information-based and any friction in the free flow of information between care provider and patient, such as that caused by privacy concerns, prevents the patient from receiving the best possible care,” Long said.

Patient concerns around privacy centre around personal and private information being made public. For example, the disclosure of serious medical conditions they may have or medical conditions being used against them in court cases, such as lawsuits and custody hearings.

“Other privacy concerns that were revealed in the survey findings included concern that should private information be breached or revealed that the victim could become the subject of gossip in their social circle and/or workplace; inaccurate medical information could be added to the victim’s record; and the patient could become a victim of identity theft,” Long said.

He believes healthcare providers need to open up communication with patients on how they protect patient privacy, with patients stating there are several measures which healthcare providers could take to better protect their privacy. For example, monitoring electronic records to prevent and identify security breaches; encrypting data so it cannot be used if it is stolen; and carrying out investigations when privacy breaches occur.

“If there is an era of greater enforcement and care providers proactively embed privacy into their culture from the onset, public opinion will change as the number of breaches decline,” Long said.

Long is an advocate of publicly reporting data breaches and claims privacy breaches from misusing electronic health records are typically systemic and occur more frequently than reported.

“Though many care providers are committed to protecting the privacy of protected health information, a reporting requirement is likely to elevate privacy as an entity-wide priority,” he said.

“Care providers would then adopt industry best practices, deploy privacy breach monitoring coupled with employee training, incident remediation and enforced sanctions would experience a dramatic drop in privacy incidents.”

The survey also found Australians clearly point the finger at the chief executive and senior management of companies to protect patient data, with 83.8 per cent believing senior staff should be fined or lose their job if they are aware of privacy breaches and fail to act.

Another 68.2 percent believe hospitals which have breaches patient health records should be publicly listed on an Australian government website.

The survey will be run again in 12 months to retest its findings, with the expectation that changes will occur in the public’s attitudes once privacy breaches are made public and electronic health records are adopted.

Follow Stephanie McDonald on Twitter: @stephmcdonald0

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU

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