How EHR Software is Dealing with Substance Abuse Records

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The government is pushing to release drug and alcohol abuse treatment records for the use of medical professionals. Currently, federal law protects this information from being widely revealed. A patient must provide their consent each time the records need to be sent somewhere, making it difficult to share electronic medical records when different providers need access. 

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA); however, sharing EMRs is an essential step for the integration of the healthcare industry. The rules presently in place may have been effective at one point in time, but they should be updated to reflect current circumstances. The Obama Administration is providing $36 billion in incentives in order to promote the transition to a better-integrated system. The idea is that the consolidation will assist in minimizing inaccuracies and errors, as well as reducing costs.

Many Health Information Exchanges (HIEs), which securely share patient records with other providers, find it simpler to eliminate sensitive information rather than repeatedly ask for patient consent. SAMHSA is looking into different modifications for consent regulations, including having patients submit an overall agreement that their records can be shared with any of their providers. At this time, they don’t have this option and must authorize the record transfer for each separate occurrence.

Not all treatment records are subject to the consent law requirements. Programs that provide substance-abuse treatment and are receiving federal funds to do so must follow the conditions of the law. However, any information that the patient explicitly shares with their physicians or any other record of treatment must only comply with HIPAA, which protects the data from the public but allows healthcare providers to have access as needed.

On Wednesday, June 11th, 2014, SAMHSA will hold a Public Listening Session in Rockville, Maryland on the Confidentiality of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Patient Records in order to understand public opinion. There are many people on both sides of the situation with strong views regarding the degree to which patient records should be made available, even within the medical field.

Proponents argue that allowing doctors to be made aware of a patient’s complete medical history ensures that they will be able to better care for them and avoid prescribing medication incompatible with their substance-abuse treatments. While this is a valid point, opponents are primarily concerned with privacy. The more extensively records are distributed within the medical field, the greater the threat of release to the public. They worry that if confidential information is somehow publicly leaked, people may be dissuaded from seeking further treatment, which could be reinforcing an entirely different problem.

On October 5th, 2011, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) launched the Data Segmentation Initiative (DSI) as a measure towards improving the communication of data while helping ensure its security. Data segmentation will allow certain sensitive information to be hidden from those who don’t need access to it, while still sharing with them the data that they require. Since, this information is currently manually concealed; the novel technology will be a valuable tool.

While improving communication within the medical field is a major goal, the obstacle of protecting the confidentiality of patient information continues to stand in the way and must be addressed before anything can really be done.

Author: Apoorva Anupindi

2 thoughts on “How EHR Software is Dealing with Substance Abuse Records

  1. Patient privacy is an ongoing issue and will not be resolved easily. Data segmentation is an intriguing idea and it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.

  2. Doctors should be aware of their patients’ complete medical history, since it ensures that they’ll be able to better care for them and avoid prescribing medication incompatible with their substance-abuse.

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