Privacy concerns have been raised over the government’s e-health bill. Photo: Andrew Quilty Liberal Party elder Philip Ruddock. Photo: Andrew Meares
New laws to give doctors and pharmacists instant access to medical records may pose a risk to human rights by violating privacy.
A parliamentary joint committee on human rights has called on Health Minister Sussan Ley to explain what safeguards are in place to protect ns’ privacy when their health records are uploaded onto a central electronic database, under the new myHealth Record system.
Currently, ns’ health records are only included on the database if they choose to register.
Longstanding Liberal MP Philip Ruddock, who chairs the committee, told Parliament the e-health bill raised “significant privacy concerns”.
It was questionable whether the bill’s objective – to drive increased use of the database by health professionals – justified the potential privacy breach, Mr Ruddock said.
“To be capable of justifying a proposed limitation of human rights, a legitimate objective must address a pressing or substantial concern and not simply an outcome regarded as desirable or convenient.”
The e-health bill is the federal government’s attempt to revamp the troubled electronic record system introduced by Labor, which spent $1 billion on the scheme but only one in 10 people registered.
In a bid to increase participation, the health records of all ns will automatically be uploaded onto the database, unless they actively choose to opt out.
Proponents of the database say that it will lead to better co-ordination between health professionals, reduce unnecessary hospitalisations due to prescription errors and medication misadventures, and cut down on the duplication of tests.
But the n Privacy Foundation has raised concerns in its submission to the legislation discussion paper that the information will be perceived as “a thinly disguised national identity number attached to some health information”.
“We suggest that the identity data … will be seen as very useful to the government, especially when cross-matched against the internet and telecommunications data and other databases such as those operated by the ATO, Immigration and Medicare, as well as a range of law enforcement agencies.”
The foundation’s health committee chair, Bernard Robertson-Dunn, said the benefits of the system needed to outweigh the risks to privacy, and it was not clear that the advantages of the electronic record system – which was designed to be opt-in – justified a move to an opt-out arrangement.
“If I go to a hospital to get a stitch in my foot, anybody can see my record,” Dr Robertson-Dunn said of the electronic record system.
“They can see my mental health record, they can see if I’ve had an abortion, they can see anything about my health record.”
The Health Department said in a written response that individuals would have a range of privacy options, including the ability to set access controls to their myHealth Record, cancel their registration or request that their healthcare provider not upload certain information.
They would also be able to monitor activity to check whether somebody had accessed their record, “effectively remove” documents from it and make a complaint about privacy breaches.
Contacted for comment, Health Minister Sussan Ley said: “I can assure all ns that as we develop an electronic health record system for the 21st century, all privacy and security measures will be taken to ensure the protection of a patient’s personal details.”