Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Singapore’s Doctors as Big Brother: Electronic Health Records

George Orwell's 1984 is a distant memory for most of us. Human emotion is not yet illegal but in many respects the Information Age is closer to Orwell's vision than we may wish to admit.

The ubiquitous closed circuit television (CCTV) camera is a part of modern life. Most modern gadgets, including the cell phone, computer and each swipe of a credit card leave a unique electronic signature which can be used to piece together our life.
The news is not all bad.
Take the case of health care records. The Singapore government has revealed that by November 2010 a national electronic health record (EHR) database will go live. The EHR will contain health data for each individual from birth to death, including doctor's visits, use of medication, previously diagnosed ailments and laboratory test results.
Next year's initial rollout will be limited to two public hospitals, two community hospitals, and some polyclinics and GPs. By 2014, the system will be available to all healthcare facilities island wide.
The impact on the efficiency of health care delivery will be enormous. Irrespective of which clinic or doctor a patient consults their complete medical history will be accessible in real time. For starters, the information will reduce the likelihood of being incorrectly diagnosed or given inappropriate medication.
The possibilities for future enhancements to the delivery of health care services are endless. The dangers associated with such a database are also very real.
Imagine your entire medical records, including personal medical matters falling into the wrong hands. The data is highly confidential and unauthorized disclosure is a violation of personal privacy.
One may argue that consolidating the data will help policy makers and health care researchers make more informed decisions. True, but at that level the data can be used anonymously and need not be connected with specific individuals.

Singapore's Ministry of Health has assured Singaporeans that an adequate 'audit trail' will be created for all viewings and uses of the information. The Ministry is implementing sufficient safeguards regarding what category of persons, i.e. doctors, specialists or Ministry, can access what level of detailed information.
The issue of personal privacy and data protection is broader than just electronic health records. It gets to the heart of a wired society in the Information Age.
Singapore is a leader in e-government and e-services. Most basic government services are available online to all residents. Buried in the e-government assumption is that a multitude of data is floating around the internet and is made available to anyone authorized to view it.
Undoubtedly, the Singapore government has control mechanisms in place to see that the data is secure.
Are the existing methods sufficient for a constantly evolving online environment? It may be time to review personal privacy laws to ensure that the penalties associated with the unauthorized distribution and use of personal data is severely punished.
Singapore's attractiveness as a regional business hub is to a large degree dependent on its transparency and respect for rule of law. The laws for the next decade will be different from those that got us this far.

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