Thursday, May 26, 2011

Using Prison Records For Medical Research: 2011 or 1984?

In the advent of the electronic health record (EHR), doctors have an all-access pass to view the medical records of prisoners - ones who aren't necessarily their own patients.  The intended use of this information is for research on medical conditions and find drug and treatment solutions that will benefit everyone, not just prisoners.  Is patient data mining in the prison system a way to network research and beneficial or exploitation of a targeted section of society?  

EHRs are meant to improve the quality of health care in prisons.  Paper records are difficult keep all in one place, as prisoners are re-located from one correctional facility to another.  The use of EHRs are meant to string together all the records and allow the inmate's doctor to see the full patient history, not just fragments.  The state of Hawaii has implemented an EHR system for their seven facilities for that reason.  In a 2010 audit, the Inspector General of the Department of Justice recommended maintaining analytical health data on inmates that could be used for research.  One could easily argue that doing so would infringe upon the inmate's right to privacy.  Currently, there are no consent forms to sign to allow other doctors access to view their medical records; so essentially, it can be seen as a breach of doctor-patient confidentiality.

On the other hand, all mined data for research is supposed to be de-identified and anonymous.  This applies to the general population as well as prisoners.  There are laws to protect identified individuals from their health data being used and mined prisoner health data would have to be de-identified as well.

If laws are followed properly, the situation isn't as exploitative as it sounds.  I'm not sure if the fact that patient data mining isn't restricted to just prison populations should make us feel relieved or paranoid.  Having Big Brother in the doctor's office might actually work to everyone's benefit in the long run as researchers are given access to a broader spectrum of information.  As long as data sold to to researchers and pharmaceutical companies remains anonymous, nobody's privacy is really breached.   

1 comment:

  1. Really interesting perspective about use of electronic health record to view prisoners medical information!