March 2015

I’m Not a Doctor, But…: E-Health Records Issues for Attorneys

Ke Huang, MJLST Lead Articles Editor

The Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act of 2009 (HITECH Act) generally provides that, by 2015, healthcare providers must comply with the Act’s electronic health record (EHR) benchmarks, or, the government would reduce these providers’ Medicare payments by one percent.

These provisions of the HITECH Act are more than a health policy footnote. Especially for attorneys, the growing use of EHRs raises several legal issues. Indeed, in Volume 10, Issue 1 of the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology, published six years ago, Kari Bomash analyzes the consequence of EHRs in three legal-related aspects. In Privacy and Public Health in the Information Age, Bomash discusses how a Minnesota Health Records Act amendment relates to: (1) privacy, especially consent of patients, (2) data security (Bomash was almost prescient given the growing security concerns), and (3) data use regulations that affect medical doctors.

Bomash’s discussion is not exhaustive. EHRs also raise legal issues running the gamut of intellectual property, e-discovery, to malpractice. Given that software runs EHRs, IP industry is very much implicated. So much so that some proponents of EHR even support open source. (Another MJLST Article explains the concept of open source.)

E-discovery may be more straightforward. Like other legal parties maintaining electronic stored information, health entities storing EHR must comply with court laws governing discovery.

And malpractice? One doctor suggested in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed that EHR interferes with a doctor’s quality of care. Since quality of care, or lack thereof, is correlated with malpractice actions, commentators raised the concern that EHR could raise malpractice actions. A 2010 New England Journal of Medicine study addressed this topic but could not provide a conclusive answer.

Even my personal experience with EHRs is one of the reasons that lead me to want to become an attorney. As a child growing up in an immigrant community, I often accompanied adult immigrants, to interpret in contract closings, small-business transactions, and even clinic visits. Helping in those matters sparked my interest in law. In one of the clinic visits, I noticed that an EHR print-out of my female cousin stated that she was male. I explained the error to her.

“I suppose you have to ask them to change it, then,” she said.

I did. I learned from talking to the clinic administrator the EHR software was programmed to recognize female names, and, for names that were ambiguous, as was my cousin’s, the software automatically categorized the patient as male. Even if my cousin’s visit was for an ob-gyn check-up.

Stuck in Between a Rock and a Genomic Hard Place

Will Orlady, MJLST Staff Member

In Privatizing Biomedical Citizenship: Risk, Duty, and Potential in the Circle of Pharmaceutical Life, Professor Jonathan Khan wrote: “genomic research is at an impasse.” Though genomic research has advanced incrementally since the completion of the first draft of the human genome, Khan asserts, “few of the grandest promises of genomics have materialized.” This apparent lack of progress is a complex issue. Further, one may be left asking whether, within the current economic and regulatory scheme, genomics actually has promising answers to give. But Khan’s work cites to biomedical researchers, claiming that what is needed to propel genomic research forward is simple: more bodies.

Indeed, it is a simple answer, but to which question–or questions? Khan’s article explores the “interconnections among five . . . federally sponsored biomedical initiatives of the past decade in order to illuminate critical aspects of the current drive to get bodies.” To be sure, the article provides the literature with a fine starting analysis of public biomedical programs, synthesizing much of the previous research on biomedical research participation. It further evaluates previously proposed methods for increasing genomic research participation. Khan’s article, however, left me with more questions than answers. If the public and private sectors cannot work together to produce results, then who is left to ensure progress? Is progress currently feasible? Are we being too hasty and impatient demanding results from an admittedly young scientific discipline? And, ultimately, if study participants/subjects are expected to participate with their own genetic material or bodies, what do they get in return?

Khan’s article attempts to address the final question. That is, if we are to create a legal or social obligation to contribute to genomic research for the sake of the public, what benefit (or, at the least, what safety assurance) do contributors receive in return for their contribution? Clearly, issues associated with creating a system of duties while providing no corresponding rights are aplenty. Underlying this discussion is the notion that to ensure the timely progress of genomic research mandated participation in such research might be necessary. Herein lies a problem: “[t]hese duties effectively privatize citizenship, recasting service to the political community as a function of service to [an] . . . enterprise of biomedical research. . . . ” What is more, Khan is keen to point out that time and time again, promises of genomic advancement in the hands of collaborating private and public entities have failed to produce promised results.

If we are to go forward privatizing citizenship, creating duties for persons to use their bodies for the benefit of society, we must be careful to ensure that (1) individual rights in the outcome of the research are secured; and, (2) that society will in fact benefit from the collectively imposed obligations.

Although Khan’s article leaves many questions unanswered, I empathize with his weariness of creating a public duty to contribute to biomedical research. Solutions to such complex issues are not easily answered. Torpid genomic research is troubling. But, so is the notion of privatized citizenship ascribing duties without granting corresponding rights. Though more bodies may be needed to further the timely advance genomic research, policymakers academics alike should be cautious creating any programs which compromise the integrity of personal privacy for the sake of public advancement without granting corresponding rights.

“Precision Medicine” or Privacy Pitfalls? Ethical Considerations Related to the Proposed Health Database

Thomas Hale-Kupiec, MJLST Staff Member

President Barack Obama proposed spending $215 million on a ‘precision medicine’ initiative. The largest part of the money, $130 million, would go to the National Institutes of Health in order to create a population-scale study. This study would create a database containing health information with genetic, environmental, lifestyle, medical and microbial data from both healthy and sick volunteers with the aim that it will be used to accelerate medical research and to personalize treatments to patients. Though some would call this a “bio-bank,” Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said that instead, the project is greater than that, as it is combining data from among what he called more than 200 large American health studies that are ongoing and together involve at least two million people. “Fortunately, we don’t have to start from scratch,” he said. “The challenge of this initiative is to link those together. It’s more a distributed approach than centralized.” Further, the President immediately attempted to alleviate concerns related to privacy: “We’re going to make sure that protecting patient privacy is built into our efforts from Day 1. . . I’m proud we have so many patients-rights advocates with us here today. They’re not going to be on the sidelines. This is not going to be an afterthought. They’ll help us design this initiative from the ground up, making sure that we harness the new technologies and opportunities in a responsible way.”

Three major issues seem to be implicated in this proposed database study. First, both informed consent and incidental findings seem to be problematic in this model. When ascertaining information from the American health studies, the government may be bypassing what users initially consented to when agreeing to participate in the study. Further, incidental findings and individual research results of potential health, reproductive, or personal importance to individual contributors are implicated in these studies; these aspects need to be considered in order to avoid any liability going forward, and provide participates with expectations of how their information may be used. Second, collection and retention of this information seem to be an issue. Questions on when, where, and how long this information is being held creates a vast array of privacy concerns. Further, security of this information may be implicated, as some of this data may be personal. Third, deletion or removal of this information may be an issue if the program ever becomes discontinued, or if users are allowed to opt-out. Options after closure include destroying the specimens, transferring them to another facility, or letting them sit unused in freezers. These raise a multitude of questions about what to do with specimens and when level of consent should be implicated.

Overall, this database seems to hold immeasurable potential for the future of medicine. This said, legal and ethical considerations must be considered during of this new policy’s development and implementation; with this immeasurable power comes great responsibility.