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The Protection of Personal Information in Healthcare

Abstract

The protection of personal health information is among the most important ethical issues that have emerged in healthcare services. Recognizing that the protection of medical information is core in providing the public with an effective healthcare system, it is prudent for relevant parties in the healthcare sector to create mechanisms that guarantee the confidentiality of medical records. Among other things, the protection of personal health information is crucial in preventing the public from taking matters of confidentiality into their own hands. Moreover, the protection of personal information is also critical in preventing the financial discrimination of patients. Although emerging trends in the healthcare (such as the use of computerized records) sector hold a promise of a better healthcare system, it is important to embed emerging trends with measures that guarantee the confidentiality of medical information.

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Introduction

One of the major ethical issues that have emerged in medical practice is the protection of personal health information (Pritts, 2010). The whole spectrum of medical practice revolves around the acquisition and use of personal health information (Lawrence, 1991). Confidentiality of information is therefore an element that cannot be separated from effective healthcare. New trends in healthcare such as the computerization of personal health records have been emerging over the years. Thus, it is increasingly becoming difficult for the healthcare sector to engage in practices that completely align with the confidentiality of information (Lawrence, 1991). The designers of healthcare policies across the globe (such as governments, providers of health insurance and healthcare providers) have therefore been struggling to adopt healthcare practices that embrace fruitful technologies and practices without compromising the confidentiality of patients (Lawrence, 1991). The purpose of this paper is to evaluate the difficulties and importance of maintaining the protection of personal health records.

Main Body

Privacy is a crucial element that allows people to remain themselves and have a unique identity, thus a right to be themselves (Lawrence, 1991). Privacy is an important element that contributes positively to promoting our human dignity (Pritts, 2010). Since most of our lives revolve around perception, we all want to present a desirable self-image to others (Pritts, 2010). The revelation of ‘undesirable’ information about us would therefore affect our personal value (Lawrence, 1991). Often, matters revolving around our physical and mental health are personal issues that we would not like to reveal to the public. It is therefore important to protect and promote the protection of information in healthcare practice for establishing an effective healthcare system.

Healthcare information includes personal records that document sensitive data about our health status. Such information could include something related to an individual’s mental health, financial position, and social relationships (Regan, 1995). In a study that was conducted in the United States by the Forrester Research for the California HealthCare Foundation, about two-thirds of all respondents that were surveyed expressed concern with revealing their medical records (Pritts, 2010). Here, the greatest opposition to the revelation of personal medical records was especially high among the minority communities (Pritts, 2010). About 70% of respondents that were interviewed in the above study believed that the computerization of their medical records was likely to contribute to the leaking of their personal health records into the public (Pritts, 2010). People are concerned about losing their ability to control the accessibility of their health records. Therefore, privacy remains a very important element; which is required for the general wellbeing of the public (Lawrence, 1991).

Due to concerns that have been felt by the public about the confidentiality of their medical records, many people are now responding through some negative measures. For example, a study that was conducted in the US by the California Healthcare Foundation observed that as many as 12% of all respondents who they had surveyed had at least on one occasion taken individual measures to protect the confidentiality of their medical records (Pritts, 2010). Here, some of the interviewees claimed that they had prevented their doctors from recording their medical information (Pritts, 2010). Without proper measures to mitigate such trends, the capacity of the healthcare system to address the needs of the public will continue to be weakened (Regan, 1995). A healthcare system that guarantees the confidentiality of patients can help in addressing the concerns that have been reviewed above (Pritts, 2010).

Concerns about the confidentiality of medical records have also played an important role in preventing some patients from seeking medical attention altogether. People who are in need of seeking medical attention in areas like mental health, reproductive health and drug abuse will especially find it difficult to access healthcare if the confidentiality of their personal information is not guaranteed (John, 1999). For example, a study that was conducted in the US by the California Healthcare Foundation revealed that as many as three-quarters of adolescents would avoid seeking healthcare on matters relating to substance abuse and reproduction if the confidentiality of their medical information was not completely guaranteed (John, 1999). Guaranteeing the confidentiality of medical information is therefore crucial in influencing a larger segment of the society to seek medical attention (for their various needs) without the fear of confidentiality breach (Regan, 1995).

The accuracy of research programs in the medical sector has also suffered due to confidentiality concerns of individuals that participate in such studies. People are likely to hide information or falsify information that they think could leak into the public. Such a direction has affected the accuracy of multiple research initiatives (John, 1999). As is often the case, many research programs on healthcare touch on data that is usually considered sensitive by the participants. Through the adaptation of an approach that promises to protect the confidentiality of research participants, researchers will obtain accurate data, hence will be in a position to adopt appropriate policies (Goldman, 1998).

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. Weak mechanisms of confidentiality in the healthcare sector can also contribute to the economic discrimination of patients. Economic discrimination can originate from insurance companies and employment (Regan, 1995). Most of the public is concerned about the prospect of their employers, or their insurers accessing their medical records (Pritt, 2010). Such concerns are usually driven by the fear that an employer or/and insurer is likely to discriminate against their clients after accessing their (clients) medical records (Goldman, 1998). So as to provide patients with peace of mind from imagined or real discrimination from economic discrimination (arising from the leakage of confidential information), it is crucial for the healthcare network to establish a framework that guarantees the protection of medical information (Goldman, 1998).

The protection of personal health information is crucial for an effective healthcare system that responds to the needs of the public without compromising on their basic rights (especially the right to privacy) (Regan, 1995). However, the protection of healthcare information has been facing increasing challenges in recent years (Goldman, 1998). Here, the necessity to computerize health records so as to improve healthcare service has especially created a dilemma for healthcare providers (Regan, 1995). Even with the introduction of laws and guidelines on how computerization of health records can be done without compromising the confidentiality of patients, many people view a computerized system as one that is susceptible to abuse (as in regards to the confidentiality of healthcare records). Information that is stored in computer networks is often vulnerable to multiple loopholes that can be exploited to access it (Regan, 1995).

Since it is almost impossible for the healthcare system to avoid integrating computerized networks into their record systems, it is important that measures are taken to protect the confidentiality of healthcare records. Two important issues have emerged from the use of computerized health records: the ease with which they can be assessed and the vulnerability of the system to cyber-attacks (Regan, 1995). Developing robust systems that can withstand cyber attacks (according to required standards by law) is one way of protecting computerized networks in healthcare (Regan, 1995). The reality however is that there is no computer network that is completely safe from cyber attacks. It is also crucial to establish protocols that control the access to patients’ profiles in networks that store health records. The public would like to be assured that their records are safe from viewing by undesirable parties. Generally, it will take a lot of effort, creativity, and discipline for parties in the healthcare industry to develop computerized systems that guarantee the confidentiality of healthcare records (Regan, 1995). The government has been working with healthcare providers, among other interested parties in the healthcare sector to try to design necessary laws that are precisely designed to protect personal health information. Stringent rules, and procedures on how the computerization of health records should be done have been established. However, developing a robust system that will be effective in preventing unlawful access to personal health records is a complex procedure that must evolve.

Conclusion

Amid emerging trends in the healthcare sector such as the use of computerized records, the issue of information protection will continue to present dilemmas to various stakeholders in the healthcare sector. While it is recognized that effective healthcare cannot be implemented without a system that guarantees the confidentiality of information to the public, trends like the use of computerized records are leading to new challenges here. It is therefore appropriate for affected parties in the healthcare industry to develop creative approaches that provide effective healthcare without compromising the confidentiality of medical records.

Reference List

Goldman, J. (1998). Protecting privacy to improve health care. Health Affairs, 17(2), 47-60.

John, P, (1999). Medical records confidentiality: Issues affecting the mental health and substance abuse systems, Drug Benefit Trends, 11(4), 6-10.

Lawrence, G. (1991). Ethical principles for the conduct of human subject research: Population-based research and ethics Law, Medicine and Health Care, 19(1), 191-201.

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Pritts, J. (2010). The importance of protecting the privacy of health information New York, USA: McMillan Publishers.

Regan, P. (1995) Legislating privacy: Technology social values, and public policy, UK, London: University of North Carolina Press.

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